The trauma of the Granville train disaster – Forty years of missing John

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Christine Earlam writes: Today is the 40th anniversary of the Granville Train Disaster  and those of us affected will receive an apology of sorts from the NSW Minister for Transport.

Although I am not working at the moment, most of my years have been spent nursing – most recently in Mental Health. I have always been a union member and have written this piece about the impact of the horror of the Granville derailment on my family.

Moreover, there were brilliant nurses involved in the rescue of people on January 18 1977. They deserve recognition for what has become a difficult event to process.

This is the story of  what happens to the dynamics and mental health of a family who experience unbelievable trauma. 

This photo is of my most loved Uncle John (who I always called “Boy” as I found it easier as a toddler.) Here he is on his wedding day between his wife and his mother. Tragically, there are no remaining photos of him with his children. 

Honouring John Malcolm Jones 

John Malcolm Jones was born in Burwood in August, 1946. His father Bob was a teacher of Mechanics at Granville Technical College and his mother Jean loved nothing more than to care for her five children, of whom John was number three.

He would grow up in Guildford, where Bob built a modest fibro home on his return from World War 2. John was my mother’s brother and I was blessed to call him my uncle. John was stricken by childhood asthma and my Nanny Jean would recall at length the many nights she nursed him through the wee hours. She would hold him upright in the steamy bathroom coaching his breathing, until Dr Paver’s surgery opened in the morning. On several occasions she “nearly lost him”.

My Nan loved with a sensitivity and strength that is rare in this world. She loved her three girls and her baby boy, but John was especially precious to her because she encountered the potential grief of losing him.

John’s father Bob was a man without emotional language, damaged after fighting in the jungles of PNG. He would keep vigil in his incredible workshop, focused on his current project. Most of his children were frightened of his unpredictable moods. Little John, however, would ride his trike into the garage and ask “Have you got a spanner mate?” My grandfather would engage him with kindness and interest.

You see, John’s presence alleviated anxiety and sadness. He was a man who through intelligence and compassion, fought uncomfortable moodiness and defensiveness in others.

My mother Margaret would fiercely defend her younger brother after harassment from other children. John was an easy target as he would not fight or show aggression in any way or form. Truly a “gentleman”.

Merrylands High was “brand spanking new” when he enrolled there. He played cricket and soccer and overcame his asthma at around 15 years. He encompassed the new music coming from the USA and the UK. He broke a few hearts because he was extremely handsome .Igors, his best friend, informs me that the house on Hawksview St in Guildford was always filled with love and laughter.

Upon leaving high school John drove Sydney Buses, the old green, double decker omnibuses around the centre of Sydney. It was my greatest joy as a three year old to accompany him on his runs, as we sang together. We chorused ‘Good day Sunshine’ because we loved the Beatles. We belted out ‘Cuddly Toy’ by the Monkees and smashed ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ by Procul Harum. Together we adventured to Tamarama Beach and the Botanic Gardens and I felt so safe with his hand in mine. My mum was supporting my dad through his medical degree. John and his mum, Jean, were responsible for me from the time I was born until my parents settled in Broken Hill, between the years of 1964 and 1969. My initial nurturing and emotional development was provided by my Nanny Jean and uncle John and in their company I was happiest.

After a failed romance, John headed for the Bauxite Mines of Gove in the NT. He spent time with the Indigenous Peoples of Arnhem Land and collected their art and craft works. Unbeknown to him, he was a descendant of the Tubbagah tribe of the Wiradjuri nation. His grandfather was a young Wiradjuri man who lost his life in 1917 in the war theatres of the Western Front. Our Indigenous ancestors were hidden from the whole family due to the seething and dysfunctional racism Australia is infamous for.

When he returned to Sydney, John was in a record shop in Parramatta. There he spotted the stunningly beautiful Wendy – in black stockings and a mini skirt. He commented on her stockings and there began a beautiful relationship. They married in Parramatta in February 1970. Not too long after, the beautiful Inez was born – very important to me as she was the first girl after eight male cousins. Our Nanny Jean would sing ‘Thank Heaven for Little Girls’ to baby Nez in her best Maurice Chevallier voice. Today Inez is gentle and thoughtful with incredible patience. She is intelligent and energetic with abilities to heal others. She remains a source of pride within our family. She like John has accomplished much in her time on earth. Her warmth and love is now utilised in nursing. In July 1971, Malcolm was born, a close image of John. He has his father’s wit, placidity, brilliance and perception. As a scientist who studied Chemistry, he now lives in Berlin with his gorgeous wife Anja and children .

And our Yvette was born in March 1974. She was three when she lost her dad, yet mirrors his love of the arts, music and creativity. John called her Bebette and was a hands on dad with all his children. Yvette is imaginative, inspirational and ingenious. She has flare, style and talent and performs cabaret. She is working towards performing stand up comedy because she is brave as well as beautiful. My family is forever grateful that these amazing people were born before 1977.

John and Wendy bought an older house in Warrimoo, where together they renovated a comfortable home for their mob. The position allowed for breathtaking views across the Blue Mountains.

John cooked divine split pea and ham soup and played ‘Nutbush City Limits’, before Australia knew about the dance. Bryan Ferry with Roxy Music and Rod Stewart would blast out while my sisters, my cousins and I would rock, frolic and whoop for joy. When my dad complained about the noise, John would smile in his gentle, cheeky way and shyly mock “but Terry, the children love this!” By now,John was employed by the ABC as a cameraman for the cricket coverage and he was to commence studies in Philosophy at Sydney University in February 1977.

God and the Universe arranged for my family to spend the day and night of January 17th 1977 with John and Wendy and their kids. My mother and later, my father, were extremely close to John. We drove to Warrimoo early in the day, enjoyed every moment with the Jones’ and left very late in the evening. By the time we arrived back in Wollongong, Mum, Dad and three daughters fell into bed.

At around 6am on 18th January 1977, Mum woke my Dad up saying “I just dreamed John died”. My father was an atheist and sceptic and naturally told Mum not to be ridiculous. He attempted to comfort her by noting that they had seen John last night and he was fine! Despite reassurance from her husband, my mother could not settle. So it was Margaret who first heard the horrible news on ABC radio. “The 6.08am train from Mt Vic has derailed close to Granville Station”.

As a 12 year old I was acutely attuned to my parents’ anxieties and fears and when I arose at 9am, I knew something was terribly wrong. Mum had been crying and they had already ascertained that John was on the train. For a while there was some hope, as my uncle usually sat in the last carriage with friends. These friends didn’t catch the train during the school holidays and that turned out to be fateful.

My light and my life had got onto the third carriage of the 6.08 train. By the time 3pm came I felt physically sick from a high level of anxiety. It was then my father sat down with me to relay that I’d better start preparing for John’s death. I remember running to the backyard and refusing to believe it. By 7pm I was vomiting from shock and sadness and when plain clothed policemen arrived at 9pm I completely decompensated, screaming at the Detectives to “Go away”. They delivered the most devastating news we had ever received as a family with genuine sadness and sympathy. Life would never be the same.

I can only imagine how Wendy and the kids received that information, but the next few months for me involved disabling trauma that affected my ability to think, sleep and eat. I will never forget the guttural primitive weeping sound that came from my poor mother. My father openly weeping for at least a day. The kind neighbours who tucked me in and held me while I sobbed. The sight of my Nanny Jones, grey and doubled in pain.

My Nanny Jean would die of a broken heart within a few years, and six months after my Poppy would follow by suicide. Neither would recover from losing John.

And his younger brother Robert broke down on hearing the news, instantly saying “why John? It should have been me!” He too would suicide years later.

‘Red Dog’ is a poignant and typically Australian story of community in the Top End. Scores of us shed tears as Red Dog searches for his second owner all over the Pilbara and beyond. I cannot watch that scene without convulsing in loud wails.

“Have you seen John?”

John the handsome bus driver who dies so young and in such a tragic way. Between 1977 and 1979 both Red Dog and I were grieving for John. My affinity to this Aussie Legend is strong.

Wendy is an inspiration to me. In surviving this loss she has raised the children with grace and determination. In such a way that the children are exactly the way that my uncle would want. She is loved very much throughout our family.

John Jones was more than a loved son, husband, father, brother and uncle. He was a stabilising peg and without him the relational unit that surrounded me as a 12 year old was crushed and permanently damaged. A family previously without mental health problems became a family with very significant mental health problems.

I will always be very angry with the state Government of the time. We all understand that lack of maintenance and poor track conditions killed our 83 unique, complex and beautiful kin. The Whitlams provide a particularly poignant line in ‘Blow Up the Pokies’: “Another man died so the trains run on time”. I find it hard to trust politicians for this reason.

As for me, I became a Mental Health clinician, because mental dysfunction requires skill, knowledge, love and determination. I have not included every member of our family whose mental health deteriorated as a result of the Granville Train Disaster. It would disrespect their privacy. Needless to say, we do not want anyone else to go through this experience because the NSW Government let their rail system decay and future Transport Ministers must heed this.

Thank you to those who have diligently and thoroughly maintained the Day of the Roses commemoration. You have helped us to feel supported, like we are not alone.

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Act V, Scene V, Brutus is summed up after his suicide by Octavius. This beautiful piece of literature is a perfect summary of my uncle’s being.

His life was gentle, and the elements
So mixed in him that Nature might stand up
And say to the world ‘This was a man’

5 COMMENTS

  1. I understand the driver of the train was also left in a mental institution following this crash. He relives the memories of this accident daily with newspaper articles of it on his room wall almost as a form of punishment to himself. A tragedy for so many families for so many different reasons. I’m so sorry for your family’s loss.

    • Thankyou Belinda. I attended the Day of the Roses 40th Anniversary yesterday. I have never felt able to attend one previously. And I now know that many others present at the proceedings had felt exactly the same way.
      There is enormous anger and resentment from families because of damage done through lack of trauma care and the paltry payments of $1000 to those who lost a supporting partner. (That equates to $4000 today).
      Families of victims were ignored and the Wran Government silenced the Coroner of the time to prevent the truth of what caused the disaster being told. We have far more insight into management of disaster today.
      My heart breaks for the driver of the train. May he find peace one day.

  2. I’m Nez’s friend and it was lovely to meet you yesterday Christine. I read this before yesterday as Nez had sent it to me. An incredible piece of writing. Yesterday was an extremely moving service for something that should never, ever have happened and yes, it could have been avoided, something I learnt. This extremely moving piece that you wrote brought tears but it is an account of how it affected one family – yours and my beautiful friend Nezzy and her family. I heard stories of other families at the memorial and they were all the same – their hearts are still aching, families changed forever and time most definitely does not heal the many broken hearts. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. x

    • Hi Karen and blessings to you.

      Isn’t it amazing how trauma can heighten and intensify memory? It became very clear to me while engaging with others at the Memorial that those affected feel like the event happened yesterday. We can only hope that the Mental Health sector continues to develop and is funded to a degree where knowledge and services improve. So many consumers are limited to the Public Health Area, while the most progressive services lie in the private sector. This is a major dilemma even as we type.

      It makes me feel happy to think that Inez has someone like you, with intelligence and compassion, in her life. She was told very little about her brilliant father growing up because of the enormous emotional pain people suffered in losing him. But it’s not too late to pass on memories that bring joy and hope. Like Led Zeppelin said we “gotta whole lotta love”. And isn’t that why we’re all here anyway? Lots of love to you Karen x

      • Yes, it is amazing and I 100% agree that it feels like yesterday to the many affected. They are all very lucky to have you to share your memories of growing up with John. Take care Christine, Karen x

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