It’s been 47 years since the Granville Rail Disaster horrified the nation, but for the survivors and the first responders who attended the scene, the painful memories serve as a daily reminder of Australia’s worst train disaster.
When 27-year-old Police Rescue Squad Officer Gary Raymond received the call that a train had crashed into a bridge on January 18, 1977, he had no idea what he would be walking into.
“The early reports were that a train was stuck under a bridge… then as we started to head towards there the police communications said it was a priority one, that is lights and sirens, and we thought ‘wow, what’s going on there?’,” he told the Weekender.
“We got out of the rescue truck… and we saw the Bold Street Bridge on top of two of the carriages of the train, we saw the train derailed, we saw carriage one torn to pieces.”
On that day, the crowded commuter train derailed when approaching Granville train station at the Bold Street Bridge, causing the bridge to collapse onto carriages three and four of the train.
More than 200 people were injured and 84 lives in total, including that of an unborn baby, would be lost.
For Raymond, it was the start of a 36-hour shift of recovering bodies and helping the injured.
The young officer was tasked with climbing into carriage three to find those who had been injured. Due to a gas leak, he had to crawl by the many bodies of the passengers in the dark.
Fortunately, Raymond managed to find 10 passengers who were injured, but still alive.
“I came across many people as I say who were trapped, one of them in particular, I crawled up the back of the carriage three and I saw a young lady, her name was Debbie Skow,” he said.
Skow, who was only 19-years-old at the time, was working as a public servant at the police force and had just been accepted to go to NSW Police Academy in the March of that year. Before the train derailed she gave her seat to an elderly woman.
When the train was crushed by the bridge, Skow was thrust forward where she rolled into a ball underneath the back wall of the carriage. The lady she gave her seat to lost her life immediately.
Raymond said he was looking right at Skow when she stopped breathing, but due to the state of the carriage he couldn’t get to her to give her mouth to mouth. Refusing to give up, he crawled as far forward as he could and slowly tilted her head backwards to open her airway.
“I just said ‘Lord Jesus, please, please help this young lady to breathe, please’ and within a short time Debbie took an amazing breath by herself,” Raymond said.
It took 10 hours for the emergency officers to release the 10 survivors from the carriages, with Skow being one of the last to be freed.
“We were just about to get [Skow] out and she said to me ‘Gary, Gary’ and I said ‘yes what is it?” Raymond added.
“She held my hand and she said ‘Gary, will I ever, ever, ever be able to get married and have a baby after this?’
“And I said ‘Debbie, only God knows’. I really meant it, but I thought she was going to die let alone get married and have a baby.”
Skow would not only survive, but reunite with Raymond.
“A couple of years later I got a call from the Commissioner of Police who said that I had to go on this television show ‘Where are they now?’,” Raymond said.
“So I went to the studio and they bought me out [under] all these bright lights, I could hardly see, then I saw Debbie on a walking frame with a prosthesis, a plastic leg.
“We just cuddled and cried together and she whispered in my ear ‘thank you for saving my life’.”
It was only when Raymond sat down to talk about his experience on that day that he noticed someone standing behind him.
“I looked around and there’s this young lady… she handed me a little baby and I grabbed this baby and said ‘oh who’s this?’,” he said.
“And [Skow] said ‘remember Gary, you said only God knows?… well God knew, my husband Steve Woodgate is sitting down there and in your arms right now is my daughter Shelby’.”
To this day Raymond remains good friends with the now married Debbie Woodgate and her family, regularly catching up with them for dinner.
After 34 years of service in the police force, the now 72-year-old Raymond works with several support groups, including the Police Post-Trauma Support Group, as a Chaplain.
It sees him spend plenty of time in Penrith visiting Nepean Hospital and the homes of people in the area who have experienced trauma.
As we remember those whose lives were lost on the 47th anniversary of the Granville Rail Disaster this week, Raymond recalls the moments from that fateful day that still stick with him.
“I removed one lady’s body who was reading a Women’s Weekly… another four people were playing cards on the table in-between the seats, and they were all crushed with the cards still in their hands,” he said.
“It will make your mind wander, one minute they’re here and the next minute they’re not, what about the family at home listening to the news, wondering if their loved ones have survived or not.”
An annual memorial service will be held at Granville today, where red roses, representing each of the lives that were lost, will be thrown off the Bold Street Bridge to pay tribute.
A permanent memorial remains in place on Railway Parade.
Ellie Busby is a news reporter for Western Sydney Publishing Group. A graduate of the University of Hertfordshire and Western Sydney University, she is a journalism Major. Ellie has worked with Universal Media, The Cova Project and for a range of other projects.