On the morning of 18 January 1977, Fr Les Campion was preparing for the 9 o’clock Mass at Holy Trinity Church, Granville. As he walked to the church, he could hear the telephone ringing in the presbytery.
As he picked up the phone, Fr Les heard panic straining the familiar voice of a parishioner who lived opposite the nearby railway line: “Father, please get down here, there’s been a shocking accident.”
Today is the 40th anniversary of what has become known as the Granville Rail Disaster when an express train from Mt Victoria bound for Central Station derailed and crashed into a row of steel pylons, bringing down the Bold Street bridge.
Fr Les was the first religious minister to arrive at the scene of Australia’s worst rail disaster, which claimed the lives of 83 people and seriously injured 213 others. Scores more were deeply traumatised by their experiences on that day.
In the years that followed, Fr Les was a participant at the annual Day of the Roses Memorial Service where he blessed the 83 roses representing the people who died.
Last night, a memorial Mass for the souls of those who died on the day was celebrated at Holy Trinity Church in Granville where Fr Les had been the parish priest until his retirement in 2008.
Today’s commemorations began with a remembrance ceremony at the Memorial Wall in Bold Street. The ceremony was followed by a service at St Mark’s Anglican Church, a wreath-laying ceremony at the memorial, then a traditional Day of the Roses commemoration where 83 roses were thrown on to the tracks in honour of each victim.
In January 2007, on the 30th anniversary of the disaster, Fr Les recalled the events of that fateful day. From the congested roadway, he recalled, there was no indication of the devastation that lay in the railway cutting below.
“I checked in first with a policeman and introduced myself as the local priest. I remember his words to this day: ‘There’ll be a lot of work to do here, Father, believe you me.’”
Down on the tracks, Fr Les accessed car four, its wooden frame splintered like matchwood, dust and particles hanging thickly in the air. “Though the vision was limited I could see people. The injuries were unbelievable, yet there was no sound, no noise at all inside.
“‘Can anyone hear me?’ I called. ‘I’m a priest. I’m here to help you. Help is on its way. Cry out if you can hear me now.’ But there was no response at all,” Fr Les said.
“‘I’m here. God is here. Let’s just talk with him. If you can say it now, say the Our Father with me.’ I said a few prayers, praying with them wherever they were, and I gave a general absolution.”
As he moved further into the shattered car, it gave a settling lurch, and, looking back, he realised his entrance was now blocked. “Somehow or other I got back into the gap between the carriage and the bridge and got out,” he recalled.
Leaking LPG gas from ruptured tanks under the crushed carriages further frustrated rescue efforts to get to the victims. A single spark from a torch could have caused a massive explosion under the collapsed bridge. Blowers were brought in to dissipate the gas, and oxygen was pumped in.
Against this desperate toil Fr Les stayed at the scene for several more hours, giving comfort to the rescuers: “Many were professionals who were themselves in shock, feeling helpless at the enormity of it all.”
He praised the community response that came to bear on the disaster scene that day. “In this industrial area, in the factories, all the resources and manpower that could be marshaled were immediately on offer,” he said.
Fr Les was Parish Priest of Holy Trinity Parish, Granville, from 1975-2008. He died on 15 March 2014, aged 87.
Published on 18 January 2017.
Catholic Outlook with Dan McAloon.