A convoy of heroes: The tradies at the centre of the Exford school bus rescue

A convoy of heroes: The tradies at the centre of the Exford school bus rescue

May 17, 2023

By Marta Pascual Juanola

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As Lara plumber Dean Eastway looked through the crumpled school bus that had flipped onto its side, he realised they couldn’t get all the children out.

Eastway and several of his colleagues had broken into the bus through the skylights on the roof, ripping the covers off with their bare hands and crawling into the wreckage to find themselves among dozens of screaming schoolchildren.

Daniel Green, Billy Chmielewski , Dean Eastway and Cameron Chalmers rescued children from the bus crash.Credit:Simon Schluter

Moments earlier, the close-knit team of tradies had left work at a nearby construction site, driving home in convoy on a country back road on Melbourne’s western fringe. Now, they were at the scene of the worst crash any of them had ever seen.

Amid a cloud of dust and smoke, the tradies had cut the seatbelts that pinned the children to their overturned seats, passing them to waiting hands outside the shattered windows. Others they could not remove, the children’s tiny arms trapped between the ground and the crushed metal and plastic of the bus.

“We didn’t know there were little kids in there to start with. We thought it might have just been a bus driver. The latches were ripped off and then all the kids were in there,” Eastway says.

“You could see dirt there and you could see their arms were trapped underneath.”

Even in the midst of the chaos of the accident scene, emergency workers diligently collected the items and lined them up on the edge of the road.Credit:Jason South

Eastway and his colleagues had desperately tried to dig into the ground underneath the toppled school bus to free the children’s limbs, but were unsuccessful. Attempts to move the seats and lift the bus had also been in vain.

“We were trying to dig the dirt out to get their arms out but we couldn’t dig anymore. They were just stuck, poor little things,” he says.

Seven terrified and seriously injured kids could not be rescued until the paramedics and emergency workers arrived at the scene.

Even after all the children were freed – some into the arms of parents, but about a dozen rushed to hospital with serious trauma – there remained heartbreaking signs of what had happened on this rural road outside Melton.

When the crumpled school bus was rolled back onto its wheels a by tow truck on Wednesday morning, a jumble of school bags, drink bottles and tiny jumpers spilled from a broken storage compartment onto the grass.

Even amid the chaos of the accident scene, emergency workers diligently collected the items and lined them up near the road.

At 3.30pm on Tuesday, the students of Exford Primary School were on their afternoon run home when a truck slammed into the rear of the fully loaded bus as it travelled along its familiar drop-off route.

The bus driver and his more than 40 young passengers, aged 5 to 11 years old, were less than a kilometre from the safety of their school – a minute’s drive away – when the bus spun out from the impact and flipped on its side.

Bystanders, including Eastway and the tradies, rushed to the aid of the injured, trapped and frightened.

Witnesses said it took 15 agonising minutes for paramedics to arrive and the triage and treatment to begin.

“No one knew if the bus was going to catch fire or anything,” said Brent Ferguson, who witnessed the crash and called triple zero.

Inside, the impact from the massive truck had twisted the metal frame and plastic seats into weapons that crushed and cut. One child’s arm was severed, while more had limbs partially amputated. Others were left with spinal and head injuries, lacerations and bruises.

More than a dozen were rushed to hospital. Another 30 were assessed and returned to frantic parents who sped to the roadside as news of the accident spread.

Teachers and parents clustered together, crying and consoling each other as the grim rescue work continued.

Eastway and his colleagues, who would later be hailed as heroes, held the children’s hands and covered them with their jumpers to protect them from the cold.

“We were in the bus until the last kid was pulled out. Emergency services were working around us and we were holding the kids’ hands and trying to keep them calm,” he says.

It was simply a miracle that no one died. Some will bear lifelong physical injuries. All of them, along with their parents and relatives, will likely carry lifelong psychological scars.

It’s not known how many students were wearing seatbelts at the time, but witnesses said most appeared to be strapped to their seats.

Investigators from the major collision investigation unit continued to scrutinise the scene late on Wednesday, trying to make sense of the tragedy from the stories of witnesses and the forensic evidence left behind.

Victoria Police has already charged the driver of the truck, Jamie Robert Gleeson, 49, from Balliang East, with multiple counts of dangerous driving causing serious injury, relating to four victims, two aged nine and two aged 10.

Gleeson appeared at Melbourne Magistrates’ Court remotely late on Wednesday and said light flickered between nearby trees in the moments before he collided the bus.

“We don’t use the term ‘lucky’ because obviously, there’s an incredibly unfortunate set of circumstances, but this had the potential to have multiple fatalities,” Senior Sergeant Paul Lineham told 3AW.

“If this is not a time for some people in the community to actually say, ‘we need to reduce [the speed] we do on our roads to reduce the road toll,’ I don’t think that the message is ever going to get across.”

Anyone who witnessed the crash, with dashcam footage or information is urged to contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or www.crimestoppersvic.com.au

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