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In a paddock beside the highway, more than a dozen bodies were already lined up, under grey blankets, while distraught emergency service crews prepared to stretcher in more.
On one side of the road lay the wreckage of a tour bus, its right side opened like a tin can; on the other was a smashed semi-trailer, its load of pineapple juice tins spewed across the road, the body of the drug-affected driver still inside the cabin.
As a journalist, that was the scene I confronted in the early hours of October 20, 1989, after what was, at the time, the worst road accident in Australia's history.
For me, it remains the single worst day of my life and I still have some regrets about the graphic nature of the words I wrote in the local paper about what I'd seen.
Journalists are often accused of preying on the misfortune of others, but the truth is we are thrown into these situations, not by choice, but by circumstance. We have a job to do, to bring the news to you, accurately and without filter or bias, no matter how gut-wrenching or unsettling it is to hear. It is what society does with the information we provide that is important.
Three decades ago the extensive reporting of the Grafton bus smash and a similar tragedy involving two buses barely two months later at Kempsey, led to two inquiries and a raft of changes including better regulation of the transport industry, improved bus safety, bans on truckies using drugs to stay awake and a pledge to make the whole Pacific Highway a divided road - unfortunately work that is still to be completed, but not far away. Attention now turns to our neck of the woods and upgrading the Princes Highway.
During my time at the Illawarra Mercury, I've found the enthusiasm of younger journalists undiminished, despite the huge shake-up in the industry and a growing antipathy from some people, often encouraged by those in high places who don't want scrutiny.
The important thing is to tell the stories of our community, whether they make you laugh or cry, angry or sad. We are here to share them with you. Just as professional journalists have done at the Mercury for more than 160 years. And hopefully society will continue to be better for it.
Rob Milne has worked for the Illawarra Mercury and ACM in a number of roles over the past 20 years. He was recently appointed Head of News at the Illawarra Mercury.