How I survived a school trip that went tragically wrong
I’m known for surviving – and I’m very thankful for that!
My mother tells stories of me surviving a few times before I’d even started walking –
- there was the dreadful car accident with her when I was a few months old. We were on our way to see my father so he could meet me for the first time – he’d been overseas in the Navy when I was born and didn’t get to see me, his first born, until I was 4 months old.
- then there was the near catastrophic bout of Double Pneumonia and Golden Staph that had me hospitalised for months and only for my chubbiness, I wouldn’t have survived – my father was away at sea for that incident too and they would have only let him off the ship if I’d died. So much for compassion!
And then many years later I survived the births of my first two daughters – had I lived in earlier times I would definitely not have survived the postpartum haemorrhages and retained placenta issues. My third daughter had to be a caesarean as a result of these earlier two births, enabling more control over my placenta that didn’t want to leave its comfy locale! Ugh!!!!!
So I’m definitely a survivor!
40 years ago – May 1978
It was 40 years ago in May this year that I set off on a dream trip with my friends, my French teachers, and other French students from my school, all of us armed with a real sense of adventure. We headed off to New Caledonia ready to practice our French language skills and immerse ourselves in the culture of the French island.
I was 17 and in Year 12, my final year of school, at Bomaderry High School, a public high school on the NSW South Coast (Australia).
Little did we know that within a few days we would be heading home after surviving a tragic accident which took the lives of 3 people, two of whom were young students in the prime of their lives.
I was one of the oldest students on the trip with two of my best friends. But sadly only two of us returned home alive.
I have alluded to this accident in a few posts before, and more recently in a guest post I wrote for Miriam on her Out an’ About blog – Five Fab Favourites. I expanded on the accident in a private message with Miriam and she commented in her post that it was my story to tell. Here’s an excerpt from my guest post:
I hadn’t travelled outside of Australia until I was on an ill-fated and ultimately tragic school excursion to Noumea in 1978. That experience was awful and enough to put me off travel forever but I didn’t let it faze me, although it did take me another 14 years before I left the country again for an overseas trip. (Side-note: I asked Deb about this experience which she shared with me, however the details are very personal and I’ve decided it’s her story to tell. Suffice to say she’s one courageous individual. Miriam)
It was Miriam’s comment, that it was my story to tell, and a podcast about survival, that made me think it was about time I told my story. Listening to the podcast of Anna Bartsch talking to Richard Fidler, about her survival of a plane crash in Burma a few years ago, got me thinking. I had to write my own story down. I have told it numerous times over the years, but I’ve never written about it, which is strange for me.
Anna had said things in her interview that stirred my memories and her clarity of the situation years later, made me nod in agreement. I had goosebumps throughout the interview and I remember turning to my husband as the podcast finished, with tears in my eyes, telling him I felt compelled to write about my accident.
I can be back in New Caledonia on the night of the accident in an instant. Despite it being 40 years ago, it is as clear as if it was yesterday. My heart starts to race, my senses kick in, my thoughts crystallize and I’m there. Isn’t it strange what the mind can do, as I scratch around trying to remember what I actually did last Tuesday, but 40 years ago – hey, no problem??
We had left Australia with excitement on Saturday 6 May 1978. A group of 42 students and 4 teachers. My then boyfriend, now husband, (the Mathematician), drove me to the airport and waved me off. I remember on our way to the airport, in the early hours of the morning, that we nearly hit a cow standing in the middle of the road! I thought nothing of it until later on. It has become part of my story as I often wonder if it was a portent of what was to come.
At 1.00am on Thursday 11 May 1978 we were returning in two buses to our hotel Chez Maitre Pierre at Hienghene, after spending the evening at a disco at a nearby resort, with a group of students from a Wagga school.
It was raining heavily and I was on the first bus which left with 13 people on board – 4 adults and 9 students plus the bus driver. I remember the road was winding, narrow and slippery. The bus slid from the road and overturned, rolling four or five times down a forty metre embankment, ending up submerged in the river, La Hienghene, with only a small part of the bus showing above the water.
I was thrown from the bus as it rolled down the embankment and sustained concussion, shock, cuts, glass embedded throughout my body and other minor injuries, but somehow I had survived.
In total darkness, and with no sign of panic, those of us who had managed to escape from the bus immediately set about the task of rescuing the injured, resuscitating those who had drowned and caring for them until rescuers arrived, more than two hours later.
But for their actions the loss of life would have been far greater.
It was tragic – 3 of the 13 people aboard, died on that bus.
Many of my friends were still in the bus in the water, and repeatedly dived inside it to try to rescue the others. One of the adults on the bus also made every effort to get the others out. Between us all we were able to rescue everyone except David Christmas (15) whose body was recovered the next day. Of the adults on the bus most were either injured or incapacitated in some way and it was up to us students to rescue and care for them until help arrived.
Somehow I was thrown from the bus as it rolled down the embankment, which in my mind was (and still is) a cliff. I had been asleep on the bus and I don’t remember anything about being thrown out as it rolled. Once I’d regained consciousness I climbed down to the others at the water’s edge and helped out. I was suffering from shock, the after effects of concussion, had glass embedded in my head and feet (not removed until weeks later) and was bleeding from multiple cuts. I assisted other students care for the adults who had been dragged from the submerged bus to the shore and climbed back up the embankment to give the helpers an accurate picture of the situation.
I clearly remember wearing a beautiful dress my mother had made me, and my good shoes. Surprisingly I was still wearing one of them and managed to find the other (don’t ask me how!). I can see myself placing them both neatly together at the water’s edge as if I was simply going to bed. It’s all a bit like a video reel in my head. Of course, all our belongings with passports, money, and personal items were lost in the bus.
The second bus with the remainder of the students and adults arrived back at the accommodation and wondered where we were because our bus had been ahead of them. The alarm was soon raised but due to the location of the accident it seemed to take ages for help to arrive.
Another memory I have is of saying ‘I have a bit cut on my head but I’m OK, what can I do to help? Some of the group were taken to the infirmary for a cursory check-over but I don’t remember being seen, I think because on the surface I looked fine. I overheard a conversation about my friend Leonie, who was a champion swimmer, and hearing the words that she had drowned. I couldn’t believe it, this was not fair!
Not all of the group had gone to the dance so there were a few teachers who were uninjured and able to care for us but as one of the remaining two oldest students my friend Ann and I, took on the task of looking after the two students who had both lost a sibling in the accident. The other person who died was a French local who had been attached to the resort we were staying in.
Things must have moved quickly because we were flown home on Saturday 13 May after a night in a motel in Noumea.
Back home in our small town, the news was announced in the media in such a way that left everyone wondering about the details. The message was that 3 people from our trip had died but no names were given out, which left everyone in a state of panic.
In a bizarre coincidence the Mathematician had decided to help my father out with his freight delivery service on the day the news was released. He remembers sitting in the truck listening to the news on the radio and then having to tell my father about it, not knowing if I was alive or not. Dad drove home like a maniac,forgetting his business customers and deliveries, so that he could be with mum to hopefully find out some news. My husband remembers it as one of the worst days of his life, having to tell my father the news and worrying about me at the same time. This was in the days before mobile access!
Somehow my father had managed to not only find out which motel we were staying in, but to also get through on the phone to me. He just wanted to hear my voice to know I was alive. I have never heard my father so upset before, or since, that day. He was so happy to hear my voice but mum and dad were both still very worried about me. Mum remembers dealing with the school and waiting for news from them about what would happen, she was not terribly impressed.
The plan had originally been that the Mathematician would pick me up from the airport after the trip, but that went out the window! He wasn’t allowed to come, so it was dad, mum and my two siblings there to collect me (at least I think my sister and brother were there) and dad drove us home like an insane rally driver. After what I’d been through the last thing I needed was dad driving like that on the 2 hour drive along bendy roads in the middle of the night. I actually dredged up the courage from somewhere, to tell dad to slow down. Believe me, you didn’t tell my father to do anything!! He had simply wanted to get me home safe and sound.
What happened next?
Well, we were expected to go back to school as if nothing had happened. We had no counselling that I remember, no support and no-one really understood what we’d been through. We went to the two funerals of our friends, Leonie and David, on 16 May and both were held on the same day. It was a surreal experience.
It was found that I had glass throughout my head, legs and feet and so I had to have the wounds re-opened and the glass removed. This necessitated my head to be shaved in parts and I would go to my kind hairdressers every day or so for them to wash my hair with dry shampoo and I wore a scarf to cover the bandages. I had a few health issues as a result of the stress but I just had to get on with things, like my final exams and finishing school in the October of that year. My parents were supportive and understanding but they were just so pleased to have me back in one piece. There was a lot going on.
After the story hit the media, we were made out to be heroes and six of us were nominated for Bravery Awards from the Queen. I’ve read back through all the newspaper articles recently and it was harrowing stuff, even 40 years later! But I’m not a hero.
News that the Queen has approved bravery awards for six young students a Bomaderry and Nowra High Schools is a timely reminder of the fine style of young people who live in our area. South Coast Register June 6 1979
On October 8, 1979, the six of us and our families, plus the Mathematician, travelled to Government House Sydney to receive our awards from His Excellency the Governor of New South Wales, Sir Roden Cutler. I received the Insignia of the Australian Commendation for Brave Conduct and afterwards I went shopping with my mother and bought my wedding dress. I was married early in the new year, on January 12 1980! (And yes I was only 19 when I married and yes we’re still happily married to this day!)
My official citation reads:
Be it known that, with the approval of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Second, Queen of Australia, I have awarded the Commendation for Brave Conduct to
Deborah Anne Pittaway:
On 11 May 1978, at about 1am in New Caledonia, a bus carrying a party of Australian school students, plunged off a road during heavy rain into a river and became partly submerged. Miss Pittaway, a student in the party, was thrown from the bus as it left the road. Although suffering from a severe cut to the head and shock, as well as the after effects of concussion, Miss Pittaway helped to care for a number of the more seriously injured and later assisted the rescue workers.
Miss Pittaway displayed commendable courage in such hazardous conditions.
What I’ve learnt since the accident
We lost a great friend, Leonie Davidson at age 17, she was far too young to die. Leonie’s younger sister Rhonda was on the trip with us. David Christmas was only 15 and his older sister Anna was on the trip too – it was just awful. As the oldest students, Ann and I helped console and care for both these girls after the accident, to the best of our ability. Their families have never recovered from this loss.
I have a real fear of steep, winding roads, especially if it’s raining or snowing and especially if I’m in a bus.
I hate getting too close to edges but have tried to overcome this fear by walking in Nepal and the jungles of Papua New Guinea.
I have never returned to the area of the accident but would like to go back one day.
We received some monetary compensation years later.
There was some talk afterwards, that the bus driver had been drinking, but I can’t prove this.
I’ve learnt to make the most of our days, as we never know what is around the corner.
I will never get over this accident, but I have learnt to live with it.
Things have changed in the way counselling is offered at schools and for tragic events these days, and for the better I must say. We could have, and should have, been offered help to deal with this accident instead of just carrying on as per normal. I often wonder what difference it would have made to my life. I have been tempted at times to seek out counselling in the intervening years but have never followed through, life was always too busy with my growing family.
My friend Ann went on to be my bridesmaid at my wedding to the Mathematician.
I don’t feel particularly brave or courageous. I just feel lucky that I am still alive and I live a wonderful life.
Life isn’t for the faint-hearted so it’s up to each of us to make the most of it.
This has not been an easy post to write but I am glad to have finally done it. It’s taken me ages to write too!
I hope that by finally writing this down, in my own words, it helps clear my mind in some ways.
I will be travelling overseas with the Mathematician and my eldest daughter on 11 May 2018. I will say a few words for Leonie and David’s souls and for those of us left behind after this tragic accident, 40 years ago.
Thanks for listening to my story 🙂
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