Wednesday, October 22, 2008

1968 – Real Death

Five years later, early in my second high school year, the ancient two-car diesel railmotor train rocked and rolled through Corrimal station right on the knocker at 8am on its regular high-speed morning dash from Thirroul into Wollongong. As it roared alongside the weathered fence edging the brick railway worker’s cottage immediately north of the Railway Street level crossing, the railmotor kicked up a huge, ominous dark dust cloud, swirling with sheets of paper. I saw it clearly from the platform on which I stood, another 100 yards further south, but didn’t comprehend.

Moments later, after the two-car train had screamed through Corrimal at better than 110km/hr, terrified kids in tears pelted onto the platform, racing straight into the station master’s office without knocking.

This was the first I realised Alice DeMartin had been struck, and that same sensation of untimely horror swept through and emptied me. Mary, and the dog, flashed across my eyes. Nothing as final as death was supposed to happen to us this early stage. Alice, my age, attended the girls’ high school adjacent to our boys’ school.

I still see the ashen-faced station master and two teenage platform assistants dashing along the platform and bobbing north across and between the lines to where a group of people were milling near the level crossing’s eastern boongate.

I had known Alice since kindergarten. We went to the same Catholic primary school, high on Corrimal hill.

Alice, with Italian parents and a younger brother, had always been quiet. I can’t remember ever saying more than three or four words to her the whole time I knew her. High School Alice always walked alongside the railway line to the level crossing, her back to Wollongong-bound trains. Why she wasn’t aware of the speeding railmotor, I’ll never know.

Like almost all other mornings, it was on deadly time this fateful day. It had scooped Alice up from behind, and carried her forward at lightning speed before thrusting her headlong into a steel post by the level crossing. She would have been terrified for a second or two before, in a blink of an eye, being catapulted to somewhere infinitely calm, surrounded by angels.

As our school train slowly laboured past the scene, someone in the milling crowd had thankfully covered Alice’s tiny body with a tartan car blanket. Looking down from my carriage window, full of horror dread, I also saw her smashed school case lying close by, along with one of her empty brown shoes.

Apart from almost being struck myself by an extremely quiet and lethal steam locomotive gliding through a freight yard many, many years later, I have never seen another rail accident at close quarters.


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