At 8.28am on June 23, 1978 at the end of the working week, a massive “explosive” crash shattered the centre of St Marys and sent a plume of dust into the morning air – not from a terrorist attacker’s bomb, but the outcome of a crash involving a runway, out of control truck.
It has been 45 years since that fateful day.
The crash left four people injured – and the intersection of Mamre Road, Queen Street and the Great Western Highway blocked by tonnes of rubble.
Nearby office workers and shopkeepers shook their heads in disbelief at the sight of the damage to the historic Astley Building on the western side of the intersection.
Half buried under rubble, the 30 tonne Boral concrete carrier finally came to rest, its driver, 35-year-old Colin Rogers, from Werrington, stumbled through the debris after being thrown from the cabin by the force of the impact, uninjured but stunned and in shock.
Rogers told investigating police the vehicle’s brakes had failed on the downhill western run on the highway, as it approached the Mamre Road / Queen Street intersection.
He said he fought to control the heavily laden truck, attempting to use the gearbox to slow it down, all to no avail.
It slammed into three cars, as he took to the footpath to avoid hitting other vehicles in the intersection, and swerved towards the Mobil service station that then occupied the eastern corner.
Rogers told police he’d been desperate to avoid smashing into the petrol bowsers on the forecourt fearing the fireball it would cause.
He chose another option – the Astley Building on the western corner.
It housed the offices of well-known local lawyer Bill Astley, and real estate agent John Olan, a well as an art gallery, and an adjoining newsagency and a chemist shop.
In that pharmacy assistant Elaine Forde arrived at work just a few minutes before the “almighty bang” that shook the shop.
Forde raced outside to try to find the cause of the noise and dust, to be confronted by the crashed cars, the truck embedded in the brick wall, and four injured people.
They are listed in local reports as Grave Brieley of St Marys (bruises and lacerations), Dennis O’Keefe, 38, Winston Hills (whiplash), Rolf Eipz, St Marys (whiplash and lacerations) and Robert Parrington, Horsley Park (whiplash).
Within minutes of the crash first police arrived on the scene from the St Marys station just a couple of hundred metres away.
The call for help also went out to the Nepean Rescue Squad, the volunteer organisation established three years earlier in Penrith by brothers John Buchtmann (Ambulance officer) and Gerard Buchtmann (Fire Brigade officer) and their friend, Penrith solicitor Paul Reinberger, all three “earned their stripes” in the rescue operation at the Granville train disaster in 1977.
For the next eight hours they worked alongside the Police Rescue Squad and local agencies such as local ambulance officers, Penrith City Council, Prospect County Council, St Marys Fire Brigade and the Water Board to clear away the debris and restore power and water outages.
Forde’s daughter, Lyn, now a local historian and researcher, agrees with those who remember that morning in June, 1978, who say there could have been many more victims.
“According to reports from the time, the accident occurred at 8.28am, just a few minutes before opening time for the solicitors and the real estate agent’s offices,” Lyn Forde said.
“My mother was there right at the time, and took a series of pictures which have now been archived.
“They show the full extent of the carnage.”
Solicitor Bill Astley told reporters at the scene the devastation had shattered him, with the files of hundreds of his clients spread across the debris.
“Dreadful. Just dreadful,” he said.
“How will we ever get them back.”
Police officers investigating the scene said that it had been just a “lucky coincidence” that when the truck thundered across the footpath there had been no schoolchildren there on their way to the nearby Our Lady of the Rosary Convent.
That the injury toll numbered just four amazed the investigating police on the scene that day.
“It could have been a catastrophe,” a senior police officer told reporters.