Former regional SES controller Bryan Robins.
Former regional SES controller Bryan Robins. Adam Hourigan

The aftermath and personal toll of Cowper

ONE of the things that upset Bryan Robins the most after Cowper was the fact SES volunteers were never recognised in the aftermath.

"(The politicians) never came near the SES. I understand they did come into the police station, went to the counter, said 'Thanks for what you did' but they never came near the volunteers.

"As far as I'm aware, they (also) never went to the fire station. They had to get back to Sydney. They jumped on the helicopter and I think - I'm a very cynical man these days - but I think they were just getting a grab at the spot for the 6 o'clock news. That night.

"Most of them (SES volunteers) here, especially those from Grafton City, I recruited them (when he got the road rescue going).

"I got to know their wives, I got to know their husbands, I got to know their kids because they're just ordinary people. They're your next door neighbour or the butcher down the road, or the electrician or the postman or the nurse - they're all SES volunteers."

"That's the beauty of the SES - everyone has skills, everyone has experience. It was very personal to me to see (them recognised). We're family. We had each other's backs, we looked after each other."

Mr Robins said he also felt desperately sad for the other services that weren't recognised.

"To me it was a political thing. Someone down in head office decided that the minister just wanted to pretend it didn't happen, the government just wanted to pretend it didn't happen, probably because of the embarrassment it would have caused in relation to the lack of commitment to fixing the road.

"They promised that they were going to fix the road and all that. That (Coalition) government had six years to do it and then they got thrown out and the Carr government came in and nothing was ever heard of since.

"So I'm very sensitive to any political party, the two major parties that say 'We've done this and we've done that'.

"I think people would be disgusted if any (political) parties claimed any sort of moral high ground on fixing the Pacific Highway. It was a goat track for a long time. And to some extent, it still is really."

(SES members were finally recognised in 2014 with 33 receiving NSW Premier's awards after Bryan and others worked with Member for Clarence Chris Gulaptis's office. "I was very happy that after nearly two years of writing letters with the tremendous support of this place and Chris, we finally got some common sense on the issue.")

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Mr Robins said he had never talked about the personal impact the bus crash had on him. "It was always about those fellows (SES volunteers), but I suffered and over time I started to feel totally weird, had out of body experiences. I don't know I actually ever looked at myself and thought there's something horribly wrong here. I was getting so aggressive and so frightened of stuff that you wouldn't (normally) worry about."

Basketball was the first indicator that Mr Robins wasn't feeling right.

"I always played at the stadium but (after the crash) I'd go up there and carry on like a big sook. I'd be aggressive and give the ref a gobful. Even my team mates, certainly the opposition. I'd go home and wake up the next day and feel like such an a---hole. I'd go back to the stadium and apologise to the refs and stuff. But the next week I'd go and do exactly the same thing."

Listen to Bryan Robins tell his story in Episode 3 of Cowper:

 

He said people knew why he was acting irrationally and gave him the space.

"I loved them for that. I became an absolute jerk when normally I was a nice person, really."   

He started to suffer at work, making little mistakes and losing confidence.  

"I went to my boss in Sydney, a Military Cross Vietnam veteran, you know, real tough guy, and I told him. I poured my heart out to him one day and he just abused me.   

"He said counselling was all bulls--t. That they were nothing more than hairy-legged lesbians, and the shock and trauma was all bulls--t. He told me to grow up, be a man, get on the piss and grow up. That's what he told me. He was one of the old school."   

Mr Robins said when he looked back at that encounter he realised his boss was suffering from the same thing he was suffering from. "He was a complete jerk, and so, it went down and I went down until I couldn't get out of bed."   He relied on his GP Ray Jones, who was one of the medicos who attended the crash that day.  

"I'd tell him how I was feeling and he'd tear up and I'd tear up. We were just passing the tissue box. And my wife would say to me, 'How did it go? Did it help?' and I'd say, 'Oh I think Ray's feeling much better from me having gone and visited him, you know'."   

Upon reflection he said he probably should have seen another doctor "but we confided in each other. We thought nobody else would really understand". 

 

Bryan Robins with wife Kerry.
Bryan Robins with wife Kerry. Adam Hourigan

At his darkest and loneliest, Robins contemplated suicide.

"That was my brain shutting down. It just went bang! The doctor said it was my body protecting itself so it just shut down.

"If I'd just had a broken arm, I could say I broke my arm - look, here's the plaster. But all of this in here (pointing to his insides) it was a terrible, terrible space to be in. I feel for anyone else who has been in that space."

Mr Robins said it was a combination of his parents arriving to check up on him and him spending 11 days in hospital that saved him.

"It was just awful (to begin with), but I knew I was safe. I didn't feel safe at home on my own. Dr Jones took me and looked after me so well. They (hospital staff) were all incredible."

Six months later Mr Robins was medically retired from the SES with post-traumatic stress and severe depression.

He was contacted by his union interested in why he was refused help and whether he wanted to take them to court.

"The bus accident was one thing and all of the trauma there, but it was the rejection by the people who you trusted the most. Your own people. The emergency services are a bit like the military. You do believe you're in a brotherhood and when that's rejected you feel totally lost, totally isolated.

"After 25 years of jumping over cliffs, organising road rescue units, doing floods, bushfires, tropical cyclones, the odd tornado, you sit there and realise you've got nothing. You're naked."

After some contemplation Robins agreed with the union and took them (state government) to court for failing in their duty of care. "I don't know whether you've tried to sue the Crown. It's like head-butting ironbark trees. And it was very daunting seeing Bryan Robins vs the State of NSW on a District Court list in Sydney."

In some ways Robins said the court case was worse than the bus crash.

"They trashed me. They humiliated me. They had me in the stand for four days straight and accused me of having affairs in the office with a girl. They went all around the world except the stuff that mattered.

"They told me I didn't have PTSD even though it was the Department of Health medical office, the State Government medical officer who medically retired me, their own people."

Robins said the tactics the defence team used pushed him to the point where he told his lawyers he couldn't do it any more, seeking out sedation at a city hospital to cope with it all.

Eventually there was an out of court settlement. "In the end I would have signed anything. I would have signed a bit of paper for $10, just to finish it."

For all the pain and misery Robins went through, he was glad something good came out of it all.

He said the organisation had to "radically" change "their whole attitude, whole policy, I believe", to critical incident stress management which now offers chaplains, a 24/7 hotline, ongoing training and evaluation for volunteers.

"That old boss retired. A new bloke came in and he was far more attuned to the 21st century and the organisation embraced it."

Robins said he takes great joy knowing that he may have helped "the poor bastards" who had to follow him.

"Some of the staff nickname it Bryan's Law but it cost me a decade of lost time."

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Mr Robins said he would not have survived without the support of his family and particularly Kerry, his wife of 36 years.

"We were almost - it sounds really bizarre to say this now - but we (first responders) were almost embarrassed to talk about it. There was this overriding feeling that no one wanted to talk about it, that it wasn't cool too talk about it, and anybody who did would be told, 'No, we're not talking about it'.

"We were very positively and very definitely told we were to get on with your life, to forget about it."

Mr Robins felt sorry for any of those people who didn't have an understanding partner.

"There were single people (involved). God knows who they spoke to. Some found solace in the church, some were very religious."

He said his wife Kerry had trained at Grafton Base Hospital to become a registered nurse and was a member of the Grafton City rescue unit for about a decade so her understanding of the situation was invaluable.

"I know all the accidents she went to and she went to a lot of them. I remember the ambos were so happy when Kerry was there, she was an ambo. She knew a lot about the organisation and the procedures so they were always happy to have her there."

He said despite her professional experience with emergency situations, at home was a different story.

"My wife put up with me for years. She could have left any number of times. The kids also copped it. It was never physical but it was certainly mental abuse. I just hated myself, I hated the world and I hated what I knew was happening but I couldn't stop it, I was just on a spiral.

"Kerry was the one shining light in the whole thing. She put up with so much. Why she didn't leave me I'll never know. She had every right to because I was unbearable."

Mr Robins said he looks back now with love and respect for his wife for what she was able to do.

"With gratitude that someone stuck it out with me. I'm happy, happier now."

The feeling never goes away but "you learn to recognise it" and "remind yourself this isn't new" and he just puts it away with all the stuff he has experienced on the job.

"That's why I can talk about it now. I'm happy not to be where I was, for so long. I feel like a bird released."

 

 

The Daily Examiner reached out to the State Emergency Service in response to Mr Robins' experience. The following statement has been provided:

In the interests of privacy, the NSW SES declines to comment on matters relating to current or former members.

However, I can confirm that the NSW SES is committed to the safety & wellbeing of our Members.  The Service has a comprehensive Mental Health Strategy and action plan which incorporates a range of programs to support the approach to critical incident management, health and well-being. The NSW SES currently provides a number of support services to its members including a Peer Support program, a chaplaincy program, an incident response team and a 24/7 free-call phone line that is available to all members. 



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