The next step toward closure for victim's families
WHEN the carnage was cleared away, the victims removed from the scene and families left waiting and wondering what happened next, it was time for the final step to help bring closure to the people that lost their loved ones.
Retired Detective Sergeant Ray Constable had a vital role in ensuring the friends and families of victims were able to say goodbye and take that step.
Sgt Constable joined the NSW Police Force as a 23-year-old and soon found himself working in the scientific section in crime scene, ballistics and mapping. In 1989, Sgt Constable was attached to the ballistics team but when disaster struck would adopt an entirely different role.
The Disaster Victim Identification unit was the conglomeration of officers in the forensic field who received special training that would prepare them for the task of ensuring families knew what happened to their loved ones.
"It was also the role to combine everyone together in training for DVI, because if a disaster victim identification incident had to take place, they didn't just have to draw it all from just one section," Sgt Constable said.
"The crime section they can draw on, and all the others. Everyone was trained in that area."
"We thought it may happen one day, a DVI incident…we'd do mock plane accidents where a plane had come down at Sydney Airport and how we would go through the process of tagging the deceased and then take them off for formal identification at a later date."
The Cowper bus crash in October 1989 was the first major event the NSW DVI team was tasked with. A small team of forensic officers were sent to the scene outside of Grafton to ensure the deceased were transported safely to the Sydney's morgue in Glebe.
"We've always looked at it this way…there's no one else after us so we have to make sure we do it right the first time."
"We had to assemble the teams, get them ready, uh get the morgue already to receive the bodies and uh then get down there and start processing it.
Waiting back in Sydney was Sgt Constable, preparing himself to sit down with the families of 20 victims.
The number of deaths that constituted a disaster has varied over the years, it wasn't the official count, but the number six ran through Sgt Constable's mind.
"I don't know how everyone else thought of it but six in my mind, suddenly you'd turn up, oh 20, so suddenly the stakes have just been raised. We've got to get ourselves into gear and do this properly, we've been trained for it," he said.
Groups were formed, some staff working with forensic pathologists in the morgue to ascertain descriptions of each victim.
"Then the other group, which I ended up being on, was interviewing the relatives," Sgt Constable said.
"Say it was your mother, or your father, what height, weight were they? Do you have any photos of them? Were there any distinguishing marks like, if it was a father, did he have tattoos? Did he have false teeth?"
These were some of the hardest and most intimate conversations the family would have in the days following the incident. Sgt Constable
"It is very traumatic on them and we've got to ask very personal questions. By doing that it makes it hard for them to get it out.
"We'd say okay can you describe what their lips and they'd say normal, but there is no such thing as normal lips."
"Was the mouth wide, was it narrow… it was very hard sort of getting the people to talk fully and describe the person and as you can appreciate, it's not as if the person has just passed away of natural causes, the person been involved in a traumatic accident."
"It was very hard dealing with those people, but it was very fulfilling for me, once I was able to identify somebody and match it up to at least let them know, yes that person is deceased, and they can go on with their grieving process."
Identifying a family member came with a bittersweet feeling, Sgt Constable and his colleagues had been able to confirm the tragic concerns of a family who now had to grief their loss.
"There were social workers who sort of took over from there and helped them through that side… and suddenly we'd okay switch back on, we've got another family outside, let's go and talk to them, so you'd have to go through the whole process all over again."
When the final victims were identified, loved ones notified Sgt Constable and colleagues were able to take a step back and embrace the feeling the harrowing task could leave behind.
"We had the training to actually do this. We went through scenarios of how to do it and what to do, so we sort of went into this switch off phase and do what we were trained to do and then when it was all over we had our own little grieving process of things that sort of stuck in our mind which was difficult to go through but we managed to do it okay."
Six weeks later disaster struck again. The same team of officers got the call, there had been another bus crash on the Pacific Highway, two hours south of Cowper.
"bad things come in threes."
Five days after the Kempsey bus crash came the Newcastle Earthquake, once again the same team were called to identify the victims.
"I was glad the three was over. I thought okay I've done my share. It was difficult. You do a lot of satisfying things that are able to help people, that's the main thing," Sgt Constable said.
The brutality of the three events Sgt Constable had worked through took a toll, and he thanks Police chaplains for providing much-needed support at the time, but he knows it wasn't enough.
"There's always that learning curve and that never stops. I believe the police are getting a lot better counselling than we did in those days. I don't hold that against the department, that's the way it was done in those days," he said.
"Things are better these days and I'm happy for it because it gives police the opportunity if they're having trouble themselves to be able to deal with it."