I was a child living in Rockhampton in 1960 when the Midlander crashed into Medway Creek near Bogantungan, killing seven people and injuring many more. The Midlander was an air-conditioned passenger train that operated in Queensland on the central western line between Rockhampton and Winton from 1954 to 1993. Bogantungan is located 367 kilometres west of Rockhampton, about halfway between Emerald (to the east) and Alpha (to the west).
In 1960 we didn’t have television (and 24-hour news), the internet, mobile phones or social media. No doubt my parents heard and read about the accident. The event, the worst rail accident in Central Queensland’s history, was reported widely on the radio and in local newspapers.
My parents didn’t tell me about the accident. I guess they didn’t want to frighten me or put me off train travel. After all, I was just 8 years old. From time to time during school holidays, I travelled by train or railmotor from Rockhampton to Rannes (via Mount Morgan on the Dawson Valley Line) to visit by grandparents. As a child I loved train travel. I still do.
Ernest (“Bluey”) Hellmuth, of Rockhampton, was also 8 years old at the time of the Medway Creek rail accident. He doesn’t recall hearing much about the accident, although his older brother Neville, 24, a railway locomotive fireman, died in the train crash. “Back in those days young children were sheltered from such events,” he wrote in an email to me. “I can remember the mourning car coming to our house to take Mum and Lillian [Neville’s wife] to the funeral service, [but] my sister and myself did not attend.” Bluey’s sister was also 8 years old (a twin).
Children on the ill-fated Midlander
Only recently I learnt that there were many children (about the same age as I was at the time) involved in the Medway Creek rail accident. In fact, of the seven fatalities, two were children. One was 8 years old, the other 5 years old. These two little boys were part of a group of 17 children travelling with a chaperone (a 68 year old woman they had just met) from central western Queensland to Rockhampton, then to Yeppoon, for a holiday under the Royal Queensland Bush Children’s Health Scheme.
The Bush Children and their chaperone were travelling in Car 7, one of the carriages that ended up on its side in the flooded creek. I cannot begin to understand how terrifying this must have been for these children. They had one carer (who was injured in the accident and unable to help) and no parent (or parents) to assist or comfort them.
The more I read about the children, the more I felt drawn to understand their plight.
Furthermore I learnt that there were other children on the train, travelling with their parent (or parents). Of the 120 passengers on the ill-fated Midlander, many were children. In 2020, 60 years on, these children (if they are still alive) are adults in their 60s or 70s.
Have you heard the children cry?
I have. Figuratively speaking, that is.
From the time I began to investigate and write about this topic two years ago, many folk involved directly or indirectly in the Medway Creek rail accident have shared their stories with me. Indeed, the response to my first article, a Facebook post (February 26, 2018), and last year’s blog post, The Bogantungan Rail Disaster: Have you heard the children cry? (February 26, 2019), has been simply overwhelming.
I’ve heard from a number of the Bush Children, children travelling on the train with their parent or parents, child witnesses at Bogantungan and Emerald, numerous Queensland railway employees, and relatives of victims or those involved in the rescue effort. All of these folk were children or young adults in 1960. Other people have written to me indicating they want to hear or read more about the Medway Creek rail accident.
During the past two years I’ve conducted my own research of the Medway Creek rail accident. I’ve examined the report of the Board of Inquiry and the Coroner’s Inquest file (Queensland State Archives), newspaper reports on microfiche (State Library of Queensland) and newspaper reports of an earlier collapse of the Medway Creek rail bridge (1956) on Trove (National Library of Australia). As well, last December, my husband and I visited the site of the accident and took photographs. We had already visited Bogantungan, and taken photographs there, in December 2017.
The following account combines my research findings with rich pickings from the recollections of those involved in or affected in some way by the disastrous Medway Creek rail accident and its aftermath.
Perhaps, like me, you will hear the children cry. I think some of these “children” may still shed tears, 60 years on.
NOTE: A list of references I used in preparing this account is found at the end of the post. Direct quotations are noted throughout the text by brackets: [ ].
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Alpha: A dark, cloudy night and a locomotive switch
Barry Mason was the night officer on duty at the Alpha Railway Station on the night the ill-fated Midlander stopped at Alpha. Just 20 years old, Barry, from Rockhampton, was relieving there at the time. He told me the train crews changed at Alpha, and a second steam locomotive attached to take the Midlander safely over the perilous Drummond Range to Bogantungan. Barry recalls being present when engine drivers Samuel (“Sam”) Dean and George Krause discussed who would drive the lead engine to Bogantungan. George Krause, who had been at Alpha for just three months (and out of that had a month’s holiday), said to Sam Dean, “You take the lead, as you know the road better than I do.” It was a dark cloudy night, so Sam agreed.
On 26 February 1960 the Midlander left Alpha for Bogantungan at 12.25 am, 28 minutes behind schedule. Sam Dean took charge of the lead engine (No. 826 Class C17 steam locomotive), with Leonard (“Len”) Wilson his fireman, and George Krause drove the second engine (No. 712 Class C17 steam locomotive), with Neville Hellmuth his fireman.
The trip from Alpha to Medway Creek went without a hitch. “It was a normal run,” reported Sam Dean. “We never lost any time and did not make up any time.” Sam said there had been no rain all day at Alpha and there was nothing to suggest that there could be rain ahead. “From Drummond to Medway Creek I did not see any indication of rain,” he recalled. [Inquest file]
However, driver Sam Dean did not know that, around 9.00 pm on Thursday 25 February, a short, sharp storm hit Bogantungan, yielding 55 points (about 19 mm) of rain.
Medway Creek: “The bridge gave away”
As the train approached Medway Creek, about 300 yards (275 metres) from the rail bridge, Sam Dean looked at his watch. It was 2.30 am. The train was due into Bogantungan at 2.36 am.
Rounding a right hand curve, Sam applied the brakes until the train reached the end of the bridge on the Alpha side, releasing the brakes when the cow catcher was on the bridge end. By this time the train was travelling at about 15 mph (24 kilometres per hour). Sam Dean recalled: “I had a good headlight on the engine. I noticed that the creek had roughly about 8 feet [2½ metres] of water in it. … The bridge was quite normal. The rails and transoms looked perfect as far as I could see in the big headlight.” [Inquest file]
However, the bridge was not all right.
When the lead engine was about 6 or 8 feet [2 or 3 metres] off the bridge on the Bogantungan side of the creek, it lurched, dropped on the upstream side, righted itself, flopped on the fireman’s side, pushed across and came to rest on the bank on the Bogantungan side of the creek. The second locomotive, which remained attached, ended up under the first locomotive, embedded in the bank of the creek. The power car and three carriages (5, 6 and 7) came to rest in the fast-flowing waters of Medway Creek. The dining car was left hanging off what remained of the bridge.
“A terrific crash”
Passengers on the train described the moments before and immediately after the derailment. One heard “a terrific crash” followed by “a series of terrific crashes”, before the lights went out. Another felt “a terrific surge forward” followed by “another sort of surge forward” before being thrown to the ground. Yet another felt “a jerk like a bad stop, and a split second later…another terrific jerk” before everything started to crash. John Ethell, a passenger in Car 2, put it this way: “I felt two distinct bumps, like a short shunt, and immediately following that a terrific crash, which would be indescribable.” [Inquest file]
Amazingly, driver Sam Dean and fireman Len Wilson in the lead locomotive survived the crash. Sam Dean, in his testimony at the June 1960 inquest, described the moments immediately after the crash:
I was sort of stunned and I felt my way out over the tender. All the lights went out and the cab was in darkness. I saw fireman Wilson round the front of the engine. He asked me how I felt. I said, “No good. The bridge gave away.” He said, “I heard it crack.” Wilson sang out to the second crew, “Are you there George? Are you there Neville?” There was no answer. … I heard women and children screaming. Everything was in darkness. I could hear the water rushing. It was rolling fast, boiling. It was not running but boiling.
Fireman Len Wilson, who was uninjured, ran into Bogantungan to raise the alarm. As soon as Bogantungan station master Brian McGann heard the news, he took prompt action, organizing his staff and local men and women to assist in the rescue effort. Taking with him on the “quad” all the stretchers and first aid kits he could find, Mr McGann arrived at the crash site around 3.00 am. By this time, several men were on top of Car 7, beginning to bring out the children.
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The Bush Children
Rosalie Meilland, 68, a widow of Mount Morgan, was a regular escort (chaperone) for the Royal Queensland Bush Children’s Health Scheme. On Tuesday 23 February, 1960, she travelled by train to Winton, arriving at Winton the following day, Wednesday 24 February, 1960.
On Thursday 25 February, 1960, Mrs Meilland boarded the Midlander at Winton, where she took charge of two of the Bush Children, Owen Goltz, 10 years, and Colin Goltz, 8 years. At Longreach she took charge of another 11 children: Susan Mullings, 10 years, Peter Mullings, 8 years, Ivene Taylor, 10 years, Gail Martin, 9 years, Allan Martin, 5 years, Christopher Martin, 7 years, Jennifer Fraser, 6 years, Edna Sundblom, 7 years, Jennifer Forster, 6 years, Joyce Forster, 7 years, and Judith Forster, 5 years. At Ilfracombe she took charge of Arthur Sondergeld, 8 years, and Eleanor Sondergeld, 9 years. Finally, at Barcaldine (having come from Aramac), she took charge of Ronald Williams, 13 years, and Trevor Walker, aged 12. By this time, Mrs Meilland had 17 children in her care.
The Bush Children and Mrs Meilland travelled in Car 7. Berths 1, 2, 3; 7, 8, 9; 10, 11, 12; and 16 were allotted to them. However, due to the fact that the air conditioning broke down in Car 7 throughout most of the journey, the children may not have occupied their allotted berths, because the conductors put them where they could get some fresh air. The conductors opened the entrance doors on occasions and stood by to allow fresh air into the various compartments.
Apparently, the two oldest boys, Williams and Walker, occupied berth No. 16. Some of the girls occupied the compartment containing berths 10, 11 and 12, and Mrs Meilland was with the rest of the girls in the compartment containing berths 7, 8, 9. The other boys (five in all) were in the compartment next door to the conductor’s compartment and kitchenette.
The little boy Martin suffered from travel sickness during the journey. Mrs Meilland visited him a couple of times and gave him a dose of Dexsal (to settle his stomach). She remembered seeing Allan Martin and the boy Sondergeld together in the top berth of their compartment. Around 2.15 am, Mrs Meilland went to check on Allan Martin. He told Mrs Meilland he was cold, so she put the blankets over him. That was the last time Mrs Meilland saw the two boys (Allan Martin and Arthur Sondergeld).
Mrs Meilland returned to her compartment and lay down in the bottom berth. It must have been just minutes before the bridge collapsed and the carriage in which she and the children were travelling ended up in the creek. Afterwards, Mrs Meilland could not recall the actual crash, but remembered being showered with glass and diesel oil (or something of that nature). But she did remember little Jennifer Fraser falling over her and ending up on the floor of the compartment pinned by the door that swung back on her. She couldn’t move.
Someone, please, help us!
For passengers travelling in cars 5, 6 and 7, the carriages that ended up in the creek, what transpired immediately after the crash is best described as chaos. They had been tossed which way and that, and many were in shock. Frightened passengers were calling out and screaming.
The Bush Children in Car 7 were terrified. Ivene Campbell (nee Taylor) reminisced, “I don’t remember much about the accident except for being woken up sitting in water and being scared.” The Bush Children were trapped and water was rushing into the carriage. Mrs Meilland (“Matron”) was injured. Whom did they have to help them?
A number of men on the train came to the children’s rescue.
One was Lawrence Murray, 43, a railway fettler of Pioneer near Alpha, an Aboriginal man who was travelling with his wife and family in the last carriage or “slip car”. Another was John Bennett, 30, a railway workshop fitter, of North Rockhampton. He occupied a berth in Car 5. A third man, Alan Streeter, 31, a railway fireman, of Gladstone, together with his wife and five children, occupied the first compartment at the leading end of Car 6.
Despite somewhat confusing reports as to which man played the leading role in rescuing the Bush Children (and others) from Car 7, there is no doubt that these three men took charge of the rescue effort. Other passengers assisted them, including: Robert Parsons, 38, of Parkhurst (Rockhampton), a wagon builder employed by Queensland Railways; Harold (“Harry”) Large, a workmate of John Bennett and Robert Parsons; John Ethell, 55, of Rockhampton, a pastoral worker.
There was a lot of water in Medway Creek, flowing very strongly through and around the ends of the carriages that ended up in the creek. It was pitch dark. It appears that both Bennett and Murray found their way into Car 7. To get the trapped children out of the carriage, the men had to break the various compartment windows. Then they passed the children out of the windows to other persons outside.
One of the Bush Children recalled: “I think they broke a window above us and took us out one at a time and walked us along the top edge of the carriage. It was scary and slippery. … A dark gentleman was the one that got us out of the carriage.” (Joyce Bunt, nee Forster, February 2018)
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Other children were rescued.
Alan Streeter, in Car 5, carried his own five children to safety before he went to assist others. Following the crash, when Car 5 came to a standstill it was leaning slightly to the left at an angle of about 75 degrees and water began to pour in. Within a few seconds the water was up to Mr Streeter’s waist. He later testified:
The children which were above water began screaming. One of the children was in the top berth and I was fishing the others up with my feet from the lower berth. At the start I would say there was only one above water and the other four were under. My wife was there and she was actually on the floor. She got up out of the water herself by standing up. When I saw my own family was alright, and I freed the door, I carried three into the corridor and my wife carried two.
Myles Delaney, aged 13, was one of the children travelling on the train with his parents. Myles and his three brothers Dennis, 11, Wayne, 9, and Mark, 2, and their parents, boarded the Midlander at Jericho. “I clearly remember being thrown out of my seat onto the carriage floor,” he wrote. Fortunately, neither Myles nor other members of his family were injured. He wrote:
My most vivid recollection of the incident is being carried by Mr Lawrence Murray on his back across a wooden extension ladder which had been placed between two carriages which were precariously positioned on the wrecked bridge, and over the raging torrent below. Mr Murray did this for numerous passengers including adults! I clearly recall seeing grown men weeping openly and dressed only in their underwear, as they frantically hacked at the roof of a carriage with axes to free trapped children within! … A big hug for Lawrence Murray, wherever he may be!
(Myles Delaney, shared by Myles’ sister, Jodie Delaney, in a comment on my blog, 1 March 2019)
One of the children rescued, Ruth Ethell, 14, of Rockhampton, played a part in the rescue operations herself. Ruth and her mother Frances Ethell, 47, were travelling in Car 7 when the train derailed. Ruth was injured, but not seriously. Her mother, however, was seriously injured when she was crushed between two bunks. Ruth managed to free her mother before helping the men pull her mother from the carriage. Both ended up in Car 5. Here, in Car 5, Ruth assisted by trying to resuscitate little Allan Martin whose body had been recovered, limp and unresponsive, from Car 7.
Bogantungan: A welcome refuge
It was about 3.30 am when Mr McGann, the Bogantungan station master, decided to leave the crash site and return to the town. By this time 12 of the 17 Bush Children had been rescued and were waiting on the Bogantungan side of the creek. He took them to the railway station, where several of the Bogantungan railway workers’ wives (Mrs McGann, Mrs Patterson and Mrs Jaques) were waiting, ready to help. The women attended to the children’s cuts and bruises, gave them something to eat and drink and found them a place to rest. “The people of Bogan were great. They took us into their homes and tried to find beds and bedding,” recalled Joyce Bunt (nee Forster).
Most of the passengers on the ill-fated Midlander were transported from the crash site to Bogantungan. Some, including those seriously injured, were conveyed by rail; others by car. Many residents of the tiny town of Bogantungan were involved in the rescue and recovery effort.
Margaret Ward was a teenage resident of Bogantungan at the time. Commenting on my Facebook post in February 2018, she wrote: “Ferried some of the passengers from Medway Creek up to the town in an old Hillman sedan. Didn’t have a licence either. Was only 16 years old. Dad was working for the railway at the time.”
Bill Karrasch Jnr, a young railway employee, was living with his parents William and Dulcie Karrasch at Bogantungan at the time of the Medway Creek rail accident. Bill’s father William, Ken Jaques, Ted Humphris and others who worked in the fettler gang at Bogantungan attended the accident. Bill remembers his mother Dulcie opening the railway refreshment rooms and supplying evacuees with what food she could (Bill Karrasch Jnr, in a comment on my blog, 26 June 2019).
Carolyn Rutherford (nee Humphris) was 10 years old at the time of the Medway Creek rail accident. Her mother, Maureen Humphris, was the post mistress at Bogantungan and her grandparents, Bert and Lena Hall, owned the Commercial Hotel, the only hotel in town.
Carolyn’s father worked on the railway. Her parents and three younger sisters were away on holidays, so Carolyn and her three brothers were staying at the hotel with their grandparents. Lynne Howard, Carolyn’s aunt, was in charge of the post office in her mother’s absence. Carolyn, in a comment on my blog on 15 June 2019, wrote:
My grandparents got my aunt to open the post office for telephone calls, and she did not get any sleep for two days. They also told my brothers and me to stay in our rooms. My grandfather loaded blankets into his Ford Mainline utility, and went to the accident scene. People started running everywhere trying to help, but the railway station, post office and the hotel were the only buildings which had either electric or carbide lights. Not many people owned cars, so the bodies and the injured were brought into town in my grandfather’s ute and my grandmother and others gave survivors food and comfort. As it started getting light, I looked over the upstairs verandah rail and saw covered bodies in my grandfather’s ute and the enormity of what had happened really hit me.
Myles Delaney, 13, one of the child passengers on the train, remembers with mixed emotions his brief sojourn at Bogantungan. He saw (as he later learned) sock clad feet of deceased people protruding from under a blanket in the back of a utility parked beside the railway station. Folk at the railway station supplied everyone with railway corned beef sandwiches and cups of tea. For free. All was well until Myles’ father told him and his brothers that there would be no more free food. Myles recounted:
The railway staff apologetically advised that their head office had instructed that once all passengers had been accounted for, normal charges would apply. Not good news for us boys as Dad’s wallet had been in his suitcase in the baggage carriage which had burst open on impact and the contents of same spread throughout Central Queensland.
(Myles Delaney, shared by Myles’ sister, Jodie Delaney, in a comment on my blog, 1 March 2019)
Medical help arrives
Two medical practitioners, Dr Frederick Bennett, of Alpha, and Dr Charles Whitchurch, of Emerald, arrived at the crash site at approximately the same time. Both men were notified of the accident around 3.00 am.
Dr Bennett, ambulance bearers and a railway break down crew left the Alpha Railway Station around 4.00 am. They arrived at Medway Creek at 6:40 am, or thereabouts. Dr Whitchurch, ambulance bearers, police officers and railway employees left Emerald by train about 4.30 am. Their train arrived at Bogantungan between 6.30 and 7.00 am. After attending to several injured passengers at Bogantungan, Dr Whitchurch joined Dr Bennett at the crash site.
Concerning the injured, the doctors discussed who should go to Alpha (with Dr Bennett) and who should go to Emerald (with Dr Whitchurch). Dr Whitchurch had arranged for the Flying Doctor surgeon from Mount Isa to come to Emerald, so they agreed to send all seriously injured persons to Emerald.
By this time most of the passengers had been taken to Bogantungan, so Dr Bennett assisted Dr Whitchurch load the injured persons on the relief train for Emerald. By the time the train reached Emerald, Dr Whitchurch had done all he could for those on board. Four of the injured, including two Bush Children, needed no further treatment.
Twenty-four persons were admitted to the Emerald Hospital or treated at the hospital’s Outpatient’s Department. Of the 24, ten were children and eight were Bush Children. Three of the Bush Children were admitted to hospital. Three of the adults admitted to hospital had serious injuries. They were: Mrs Frances Ethell, 47, Mervyn McMurdo, 21, and Sidney Moore, 24, all of Rockhampton.
Two of the men involved in the rescue operations, Lawrence Murray and Alan Streeter, were among those treated at the Outpatient’s Department of the Emerald Hospital. Mr Murray had glass in his left foot; Mr Streeter had a laceration of the left wrist. One of Mr Streeter’s five children, Colleen, 5, had facial bruising, mainly to the upper lip. She was also treated at the hospital’s Outpatient’s Department.
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In the meantime, Dr Bennett returned to Alpha. On the train with him were six injured passengers, all of whom were admitted to the Alpha Hospital. Five of these six people were over the age of 60. None had serious injuries, though, and all but one were discharged by 4 March. A seventh person was treated as an outpatient at the hospital the next day and discharged on 7 March.
Driver Sam Dean and fireman Len Wilson were also on the train that returned to Alpha that morning. Dr Bennett reported they were both “very upset”. Dr Bennett gave Sam Dean an injection of morphia, which settled him for a time. Len Wilson declined Dr Bennett’s offer of a sedative.
The body of Allan Martin, 5, of Longreach, one of the victims of the crash, was taken on the train to Alpha. Later that day, Dr Bennett performed the child’s post mortem examination.
Emerald: A halfway house
At Emerald, the children and families from the Midlander were well cared for. Some residents offered the families respite at their homes. Others provided food and clothing. A number of Emerald residents (children at the time of the accident) remembered children they did not know coming to their school on Friday 26 February 1960:
I was 7 years old and a student at Emerald Primary School. We were told there was a train accident and I remember a lot of people bringing children to our school. We didn’t have any other information, and went home after school to tell our parents. I expect they used the school as an evacuation centre.
(Valerie Kummerow, nee Yeomans, in a comment on my blog, 26 February 2019)
I was 10 years old and at the Emerald State School. … It was about 9.00 am while I was on the steps at the back of the school that I saw a line of children whom I did not know in the school yard. I do not recall how many but it must have been 20 or more. They went into the domestic science building and we went into our classroom. Apparently they were given something to eat there. By the time “little lunch” or “lunch” came around, they had gone. We were told nothing.
(Ken England, in a comment on my blog, 25 October 2019)
I was at the high school attached to the primary school [at Emerald]. We were aware what happened and the story I remember was that one of the primary school teachers was to celebrate her 21st birthday with a morning tea in the domestic science room. She decided that the morning tea should be given to children from the accident.
(Lorraine Anderson, in a comment on my blog, 26 June 2019)
Rockhampton at last
From Emerald, most of the passengers from the Midlander were taken by train to Rockhampton. Rockhampton was home for some of them. Others still had a way to travel. A few were hospitalized at Rockhampton.
Ivene Campbell (nee Taylor), one of the Bush Children, doesn’t have happy memories of the train trip to Rockhampton. In response to my Facebook post in 2019, she wrote:
That train trip was so terrifying that I remember crying that we were going to fall over again because of the rocking of the train. I spent a couple of weeks in the Rocky hospital because of the cut on my head. I was 10 years old and I still don’t like going on trains when there is rain.
Myles Delaney, however, has nothing but praise for the way he and his family were looked after following the Medway Creek rail accident. He wrote in 2019, “Queensland Rail came to my family’s rescue with transport and accommodation all the way home to Innisfail!”
Joyce Bunt (nee Forster) and her two sisters, three of the Bush Children, eventually arrived at their destination (the Leslie Wilson Bush Children’s Home, Yeppoon), but not together. According to Joyce, “they separated us”. The two older girls, Joyce, 7 and Jennifer, 6, were sent to the Rockhampton Base Hospital the day after the accident; the youngest, Judith, 5, was sent to Yeppoon. In response to my Facebook post in 2018, Joyce explained:
My youngest sister only turned 5 on the 18th February. They sent her to the home. She was too shy and scared so she would not speak to them. So they didn’t know who she was for a few days until Jennifer and I got there. In the meantime they were telling our parents they had found us but not Judith. When we were taken there they said, “I think we might have someone you … know.
Seven people died when the Midlander crashed into Medway Creek early in the morning of 26 February 1960. All deaths were later found (by the coroner) to be accidental. Three railway employees and four passengers, including two Bush Children, died in the crash.
Dr Frederick Bennett conducted one post mortem examination at Alpha on Friday 26 February 1960. Dr Charles Whitchurch conducted the other six post mortem examinations at Emerald on Saturday 27 February 1960.
George Albert Krause, 34, married, of Nundah (Brisbane), the driver of the second locomotive, died from multiple gross abdominal and thoracic injuries. Neville Eric Hellmuth, 24, married, of Alpha (formerly of Rockhampton), the fireman of the second locomotive, died of asphyxia and multiple injuries. Both bodies were recovered from under the second locomotive and in both cases death would have been instantaneous.
Of the other five persons who died, four were travelling in Car 7, one in Car 6. (Cars 6 and 7 were two of the carriages that ended up in Medway Creek.)
The conductor, Samuel George Hedges, 62, married, of Rockhampton, died of drowning. His body was recovered from the conductor’s compartment in Car 7, having been catapulted through the outside window and his leg caught in the window blind. Given his injuries, he would have been rendered unconscious before drowning.
A passenger, Alexander Fraser, 65, single, of Winton, a cook by trade, died as the result of a fractured skull. His body was recovered from berth 20, in the compartment at the leading end of Car 7. Death was caused by crumpling of the side wall of the compartment, crushing Mr Fraser’s head between the sleeper (“bunk”) and the wall.
One of the Bush Children, Arthur George Sondergeld, 8, of Ilfracombe, died as a result of drowning. His body was recovered from Medway Creek about 300 yards (approximately 275 metres) downstream. His only other injury was a cut above the nose. The child was apparently thrown through a broken window of his compartment (the one next to the conductor, in Car 7) and washed downstream.
Another one of the Bush Children, Allan George Martin, 5, of Longreach, also died as a result of drowning. His body was recovered from Car 7 where he was a passenger with other Bush Children (including Arthur Sondergeld). No other injuries were apparent.
Harold Edward Large, 66, of Barcaldine, died as a result of a ruptured spleen. Mr Large’s body was recovered from Car 6 where he had been a passenger in berth 2. During the crash he was thrown from the berth to the floor and was probably struck by a port that fell from a rack above the corridor.
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I’ve never experienced the death of a loved one in such tragic circumstances. So I cannot appreciate how terrible it must have been for the wives, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles or cousins who lost a loved one in this accident.
I’ve read that the body of Arthur Sondergeld, 8, was identified by his 9 year old sister, and the body of Allan Martin, 5, was identified by his 7 year old brother. How awful is that? I can’t help but wonder what impact this experience had on the surviving siblings.
Of the 11 Bush Children who boarded the Midlander at Longreach on 25 February, 1960, seven were cousins. The three Forster sisters, Jennifer Fraser and the three Martin siblings. I suspect the death of Allan (“Marty”) had a significant impact on them. Joyce Bunt (nee Forster) wrote on my Facebook page in February 2018:
Marty was one of the young boys that didn’t make it that horrible night. We were all going to the Bush Kids’ holiday home at Yeppoon. We were from Longreach. I still get goose bumps whenever I think about it, but we were the lucky ones. … Some of us still find it hard to talk about [it].
Bluey Hellmuth, brother of Neville Hellmuth, remembers he and his twin sister were walking to school when they heard a scream come from the direction of their home. Later he learnt that his mother had been told of the accident by a neighbour, who heard the news on the radio.
John Doyle, cousin of Neville Hellmuth, can still remember clearly the morning when the ABC [radio] carried the news of the disaster. His parents were still in bed. John’s mother heard on the bedhead radio that Neville (her nephew, one of her favourites) had lost his life. “The memory of her being wracked with grief is clearly with me,” John wrote in a comment on my blog post in 2019.
Funerals for five of the victims were held at four different Central Queensland locations on Saturday 27 and Sunday 28 February 1960.
Five-year-old Allan Martin was buried in the Longreach cemetery on Saturday 27 February. Burial services for railway employees fireman Neville Hellmuth and conductor Samuel Hedges were held in Rockhampton on Sunday 28 February, at the Musgrave Street Methodist Church, North Rockhampton, and St Joseph’s Cathedral, respectively. Both were interred in the North Rockhampton cemetery. On Sunday 28 February, former World War I veteran and war pensioner, Harold Large, was buried in the Barcaldine cemetery following a service in the town’s Methodist Church. Eight-year-old Arthur Sondegeld was buried at Ilfracombe on Sunday 28 February after a service at St John’s Anglican Church, Ilfracombe.
The inquiry and coroner’s inquest
A Queensland Railways Department inquiry into the derailment of the Midlander at Medway Creek near Bogantungan on Friday 26 February 1960 opened at Rockhampton on Thursday 3 March 1960. It commenced the day after the rail bridge over Medway Creek reopened for traffic. From Friday 4 March to Wednesday 16 March 1960, the six-man Board of Inquiry heard evidence from numerous witnesses at various locations, in this order: Bogantungan, Rockhampton, Alpha, Bogantungan, Emerald, Rockhampton. The report of the inquiry is huge and comprehensive, comprising 519 typed pages!
An inquest into the manner and cause of death of the seven victims of the Medway Creek rail accident opened at Emerald in the week commencing March 7, 1960, but was adjourned until late in June, 1960. The coroner, Mr C H Smith Esq, Stipendiary Magistrate of Emerald, reopened the inquest at Emerald on June 21, 1960. Over the next 9 days, he received a number of statements, viewed numerous exhibits and listened to the testimony of 32 witnesses. Mr Smith handed down his findings on 30 June 1960.
In summary, Mr Smith found that the evidence discloses only one possible cause of the disaster:
A tree was uprooted above the bridge and was carried downstream by flood waters, resulting from a heavy downpour in the catchment area of Medway Creek. The tree apparently struck the upstream pile in pier 5, breaking the mortise and dislodging the pile from its bed. The weight of the leading engine caused this pile to give away, and the second engine, power car and three leading coaches plunged into Medway Creek.
Although the line was not run that night, it is evident that the weakening of the bridge would not have been discovered even if this had been carried out. There is no evidence of any mechanical defects in the engine and coaches, and the running crew cannot be blamed in any way.
Mr Smith commended the good work done by many railway officials and passengers in the rescue of trapped passengers and the care of injured people. However, he singled out two railway employees for special mention: John William Bennett and Alan Kingsford Streeter. He wrote:
Although it is hard to get a clear picture of what actually took place in the dark hours of that morning, it is quite apparent that Streeter and Bennett took leading parts in the rescue of “Bush” Children and other passengers. Their prompt action saved the lives of several younger children trapped in the leading coach, No. 7, which was in the Creek bed. The water was still rising at the time of the “Smash”, and did so for nearly thirty minutes thereafter. It can be said that the two men, particularly Bennett, risked serious injury, if not their lives, in the work they did.
Mr Smith recommended that appropriate action be taken to ensure that these two men be given some recognition for the work done.
As a result of the coroner’s recommendation, in March 1961, John Bennett and Alan Streeter were awarded the Queen’s Commendation for Brave Conduct. Mr Bennett’s recommendation stated that when the carriage in which he was travelling plunged into the creek, he immediately started rescue efforts, extricating trapped Bush Children and carrying them to safety. Mr Streeter’s recommendation stated that after having rescued his wife and five children he rescued others during all the rescue operations.
A third man, Lawrence Murray, was also honoured with the Queen’s Commendation for Brave Conduct. His recommendation stated that he swam across the Medway Creek, a raging torrent, 10 ft deep, to obtain tools for rescue work, worked up to his waist in water to rescue and carry 15 children to safety, and continued his rescue efforts until daylight.
Sadly, Lawrence Murray didn’t live to receive the award.
Mr Murray died suddenly, of a heart attack, on 20 March 1960, just days after he appeared before the Board of Inquiry and less than four weeks after the Medway Creek rail accident. An Aboriginal man, his funeral service was conducted at Woorabinda, where he and his family had resided prior to his appointment as a railway fettler at Alpha.
The aftermath: Stories abound, memories linger
A tragic event such as the Medway Creek rail accident is not easily forgotten. Throughout Central Queensland, from Rockhampton to Emerald, Emerald to Bogantungan to Alpha, Alpha to Barcaldine, Barcaldine to Longreach, Longreach to Winton, stories of what happened at Medway Creek in the early hours of 26 February 1960 have been told and retold.
For those deeply affected by the accident, the pain and grief may subside, the memories may fade, but the emotional scars last a lifetime. This is true not only for the crew and passengers who survived the accident, but also for those who lost loved ones and those involved in the rescue and recovery operations.
My grandfather worked for the railway and was working on the train on the night of the tragic accident. It affected him for the rest of his life. His lasting memory was of the children screaming and trying to save them.
(Trudy Tattam, in a comment on my blog, 26 June 2019)
[The Medway Creek rail disaster] broke many hearts including those of my mother, Amy Hellmuth and Lillian, Neville’s then pregnant wife, who later delivered a son (Neville). Mum passed away in 2007, aged 97, buried with Neville, at her request. I took Mum to visit the site in 2005, photo attached of Mum sitting beside the memorial plaque at the Bogantungan railway station.
(Bluey Hellmuth, by email, 2020)
The memory lingers on with the people who knew others who had died in this tragedy. My husband and his family knew the train driver who is buried in the Alpha Cemetery. We went there 50 years ago. My husband was a night officer [at Bogantungan]. … No one forgot about the tragedy.
(Irene Bunt, on Facebook, February 2019)
When I went to work as a PMG technician in Barcaldine and Longreach (1971 to 1981) I remember locals talking about their experiences [of the Medway Creek rail accident]. A couple of lads from one family were going down to Brisbane to do their post office entry exams. They survived the crash and described how survivors trekked into Bogantungan in the dark and lined up at the railway station to ring their families via the local PMG manual exchange to tell them they were okay.
(Dave McLeod, in a comment on my blog, 26 February 2019)
I was fortunate to work with and know a number of those directly involved in derailment and hear their stories: driver Sambo Dean, guard Kerrod Jaques (both from Alpha), Evan Van Mastreigt, who was the Bogantungan night officer on duty, ganger Ken Jaques (Kerrod’s brother) and Flora Jaques (Ken’s wife) who assisted in treating the injured. … Kerrod was the only one who didn’t say much other than to say the guard’s van didn’t end up in the creek and he helped where he could. He obviously didn’t want to talk about it.
Sambo however spoke of coming down into the bridge and he felt the bridge start to give way under the weight of the engine so he engaged full power. He said the engine broke free of the second engine and shot forward but rolled on to its side on the far bank. His fireman ran to Bogantungan to raise the alarm. Tears welled up in his eyes as he spoke of the terrified screams and cries of the children as they were washed down the creek in the darkness.
(Graham Creagh, in a comment on my blog, February 2019)
The residents of Bogantungan never forgot the terrible events of 26 February 1960.
The Medway Creek rail accident may have caused the residents of Bogantungan much sorrow, but they didn’t let it define them. The townsfolk who lived through the events of 26 February 1960 always looked back with pride on the way their close-knit community responded to the disaster. They soldiered on.
Graham Creagh, assistant station master at Bogantungan in 1980-1981, worked to beautify the railway station grounds. He built gardens and planted trees around the back of the station buildings. “In those days,” wrote Graham in a comment on my Facebook page in 2018, “the Railway used to hold garden competitions for their stations and Bogantungan took out first prize for Central Queensland in 1981.”
Sad to say, another horrific rail accident occurred near Bogantungan in December 1981. A train derailed on a bend not far from Hannam’s Gap, about 14 kilometres west of Bogantungan. The engine driver was killed in the resulting inferno that destroyed the engine, eight fuel wagons, one box car wagon and two open top wagons. This was another blow for the people of Bogantungan.
Today, Bogantungan consists of just a few houses. Many of the town’s old identities have died. The once-thriving railway town is but a memory. Trains don’t stop here anymore. The Bogantungan Railway Station closed on 20 July 1989.
The Bogantungan railway complex remains, but now it’s a museum. The town’s history, including photographs and memorabilia connected with the 1960 Medway Creek rail accident, is on display in the former railway station building.
Last year, in The Bogantungan Rail Disaster: Have you heard the children cry? (February 26, 2019), I flagged my desire to write a book about the Medway Creek rail accident, with a focus on the children involved. I’m still hoping to do so.
Were you one of the children on the train? Or do you know someone who was a child travelling on the Midlander that fateful morning? If so, I’d love to hear from you. You can leave your contact details and a brief comment at the end of this post or write to me via email. My email address is: email@example.com
During the last two years, as I’ve researched the Medway Creek rail accident – read the reports, collected photographs, read and responded to emails and comments on my blog and Facebook page and listened to people tell their stories – I feel like I’ve lived through this event myself. Although the accident occurred 60 years ago, it could have been just yesterday. I can’t stop thinking about it.
I still hear the children cry.
Queensland State Archives. Series 36. Item 350060. Inquest file: Depositions and findings in coroners’ inquests Medway Creek Railway Disaster. 1/1/1960–31/12/1960.
Queensland State Archives. Series 36. Item 350060. Derailment of “Midlander” at Medway Creek Bridge near Bogantungan on the 26th February, 1960: Evidence taken from Friday, 4th March, 1960, to Wednesday, 16th March, 1960, at Bogantungan, Rockhampton, Alpha, Bogantungan, Emerald, Rockhampton.
Queensland State Archives. Series 18465. Items (19 in total). Photographic material of Medway Creek Bridge. 1/1/1956–31/12/1956.
State Library of Queensland. On microfiche: Newspaper reports in The Courier Mail (Brisbane), The Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton) 27 February 1960 and following. Regular reports from the Railways Board of Enquiry, which commenced on 3 March 1960, in subsequent editions of these newspapers.
ROAD, RAIL SERVICES CUT BY FLOODING. (1956). Central Queensland Herald (Rockhampton, Qld. : 1930 – 1956), Thursday 16 February, page 9. Online: Retrieved on 12 February 2020.
RAIL BRIDGE SWEPT 200 YDS. (1956). Central Queensland Herald (Rockhampton, Qld. : 1930 – 1956), Thursday 23 February, page 22. Online: Retrieved on 11 February 2020.
WOORABINDA MAN HERO OF MEDWAY CREEK TRAIN DISASTER. (1960). The Australian Evangel, May 1960, Vol. 31. No. 1, page 8. Online: Retrieved on 12 February 2020.
MR LAURENCE MURRAY CALLED HOME. (1960). The Australian Evangel, May 1960, Vol. 31. No. 1, page 9. Online: Retrieved on 12 February 2020.