When the party is over forever

 

For Julie Tam, Saturdays are the worst.

For that was when her 22 year old son Joshua Tam, who died of a pill overdose at the Lost Paradise music festival on the Central Coast last December, would come around with a bag of laundry and to see the family.

"There wasn't a week that we did not see our son or a day we didn't speak," she said at this week's coronial inquest into music festival deaths.

Joshua Tam, who died after Lost Paradise festival on December 29 2018.
Joshua Tam, who died after Lost Paradise festival on December 29 2018.

"Only just having moved out of home he would drop around weekly after saving up a bag full of his dirty clothes for his dad to do his washing.

"A ritual that has since become a silent aching every Saturday when our boy doesn't walk in the door with that bag of clothes flung over his shoulder and him asking 'Ma, what's for dinner?'"

The Tams, along with members of five other families, reticently joined in the raw grief of losing their child to the potency of MDMA at festivals across NSW this week faced the ignominy of an inquest that replayed the final moments of their deaths.

Not one thought they could bear to listen for five days to the harrowing accounts of how medics battled to lower their boiling body temperatures and resuscitate them - but they did, to stir the debate towards necessary change and ensure a safer Australia.

Some did it for final closure. The parents of Joseph Pham, 23, and Diana Nguyen, 21, who both died at Defqon. 1, sent representatives in their place.

An inquest into a shocking string of deaths at music festivals has shone the spotlight on those left behind.
An inquest into a shocking string of deaths at music festivals has shone the spotlight on those left behind.

"In the Asian culture you don't speak about things openly," one said, "so when you have a child with an addiction, or who takes recreational drugs, who dies, no one will come up to you.

"Some of my family members will not admit he (Joseph) died of an overdose."

Alarmingly, the average dose of MDMA has soared in recent years from an 85mg pill to a 300mg-strong capsule. It has replaced ecstasy as the "drug of choice" at hard dance music festivals. Health figures show that up to 90 per cent of revellers at dance festivals will take drugs.

After a horrific summer that saw many young Australians hospitalised for ingesting dangerous drugs, the NSW State Coroner's Court heard how the six deaths shared "common themes" - each had consumed more than one MDMA tablet or cap and in cases, such as Alex Ross-King, 19, at FOMO festival, and Nathan Tran, 18, at Knockout Circuz, the victims were seen to act aggressively or erratically before their deaths, in a way that was out of character.

Like the parents of most the other young people, Callum Brosnan's mum and dad did not know he had used drugs. At the Knockout Games of Destiny festival at Sydney Showgrounds on December 8 last year, he is estimated to have taken between six and nine pills and consumed a lot of water.

Alex Ross-King, who died at FOMO festival.
Alex Ross-King, who died at FOMO festival.

Privately-educated Joshua Tam, 22, took five or six pills when he lost consciousness and became combative at NSW Central Coast Lost Paradise festival on December 29 2018.

Not since the death from one ecstasy pill of Sydney teenager Anna Wood in 1995 have there been such fervent calls to review the prohibition mantra on drugs by politicians.

The freckly, honey blonde, green-eyed 15-year-old whose face was depicted on a promotional badge for an anti-drugs campaign that urged Australian school goers to "say no to drugs" raised awareness of ecstasy use and prompted Australian state governments to draw up new laws for dance venues.

Two years later the Code of Practice for Dance Parties was passed, making provision of chill rooms and free water compulsory for club owners to obtain their licence in NSW.

But what about festivals in NSW?

The coroner's court cafe Piccolo Me has become an impromptu debating chamber for change hosting the grieving relatives of the six victims, police, festival organisers, patrons, lawyers and drugs experts sharing ideas as they await their turn to be called to the stand to give evidence.

The father of Callum Brosnan, Cornelius Brosnan, who died after attending the Knockout Games of Destiny event in December 2018. Picture: Tracey Nearmy
The father of Callum Brosnan, Cornelius Brosnan, who died after attending the Knockout Games of Destiny event in December 2018. Picture: Tracey Nearmy

Joshua's parents Julie and John say each day that has passed since their son overdosed serves as a "constant, painful and silent" reminder of his absence and the need for pragmatic legislation by governments to prevent further deaths.

"There's not a completely solution, you'll never eliminate drugs, but if Josh's death means we can legislate to minimise harm and others can learn from our loss then his was not entirely for nothing," office manager Julie told Saturday Extra.

"It's not about finding blame, I'm not angry with the festival organiser.

"They need to improve their festivals and make changes to keep our young kids safe.

"We knew Josh had tried drugs and we had conversations, many, he would say, 'mum, I'm not stupid'.

"But unless you're with them all the time what control do you have?

"We all did stupid things and tested boundaries when we were young.

"This is a different generation, there are riskier things out there.

John (left) and Julie Tam, parents of Joshua Tam. Picture: Bianca De Marchi
John (left) and Julie Tam, parents of Joshua Tam. Picture: Bianca De Marchi

"Josh took himself away from his mates and during that time his health deteriorated, if someone had been with Joshie when he had been unwell, if he had buddied up and got health care sooner, he may have survived.

"The government needs to spend less on policing and get more trained medical rovers who can identify kids who are unwell."

For Joseph's father hard core dance festivals should be banned because they encourage pressure on young patrons to take drugs to keep up with the music.

"Unless you lock down big raves and festivals like an airport, crowd control doesn't work," Cong Pham has said.

"We will never be the same again, it's time to stop Defqon and big festivals, they're magnets to drug dealers.

"You need drugs to keep up".

8/7/19 The mother of Alex Ross-King, Jenny Ross with partner Andrew Murphy. Picture: Tracey Nearmy
8/7/19 The mother of Alex Ross-King, Jenny Ross with partner Andrew Murphy. Picture: Tracey Nearmy

For Jennie Ross-King the death of her only child six months ago is raw. She is for pill testing and a National Drugs Summit in NSW to review the realities of drug taking.

"I don't want to pre-empt any findings or recommendations but I would however like to see a National Drug Summit involving all stakeholder groups and government agencies, the last drug summit in New South Wales was held from the 17th to the 21st of May 1999 and closed four days before Alex was born. I find this concerning," she said.

"I am not an expert but in my limited research I can confidently say there has been significant change in drug consumption, drug manufacturing and drug distribution.

"NSW just on 20 years seems an awful long time to not review something that has always been a public health issue."

"I am not an expert however, in my limited research I can confidently say there has been significant change in drug consumption, drug manufacturing and drug distribution. I cannot comment on any other state and what they have been reviewing, discussing or implementing. NSW however just on 20 years seems an awful long time to not review something that has always been a public health however this is a nationwide challenge."

As the inquest considers the vexed question of pill testing to see what chemicals are in the drugs, the court heard that all six young people died from "lethal" quantities of MDMA.

Simon Coffey, whose company Q-dance promotes the controversial Defqon festival, believes hugs at the gate, Facebook buddies to pair up and amnesty bins for revellers to ditch their drugs when they see police would significant reduce, if not eliminate, drug deaths at his Sydney events. He says a high profile police presence at festivals are "intimidating" to drug-taking patrons who would not ask for help for fear of being jailed.

A high profile police presence at festivals are “intimidating” to drug-taking patrons who would not ask for help for fear of being jailed
A high profile police presence at festivals are “intimidating” to drug-taking patrons who would not ask for help for fear of being jailed

He recommends the use of a mobile phone application that warns people of dangerous substances circulating in their region, a program used by the Dutch.

This year's Defqon has been postponed after the NSW Government seems the Sydney International Regatta Centre unsuitable for the 30,000-strong event. Organisers are still sourcing an alternative venue. "We're still hopeful"Mr Coffey told the inquest.

He said Nguyen on Pham's deaths last year "shocked" the company and himself and revealed both he and his daughter attend festivals.

"The more inclusive people feel, the less they take drugs … therefore if they are given a hug at the gate, earplugs and made to feel they are being looked after and made to feel part of the community, they're likely to (take drugs)," he said.

NSW coroner next week will continue its inquest into what counsel assisting Peggy Dwyer called "a recent substantial increase in the drug-related harms associated with a small number of music festivals" and an "unexpectedly marked increase" in the number of drug-related deaths.

Solicitor Andrew Stewart (right) with his client Defqon festival organiser Simon Coffey arrive at the Lidcombe Coroners Court in Sydney. Picture: Peter Rae
Solicitor Andrew Stewart (right) with his client Defqon festival organiser Simon Coffey arrive at the Lidcombe Coroners Court in Sydney. Picture: Peter Rae

The inquest is considering ways to prevent further deaths at music festivals, including harm-reduction measures such as drug-checking and issues around law enforcement.

Meanwhile the parents of the six young victims continue to seek answers and a semblance of reassurance among other grieving families.

"It's hard us all being here together but also comforting, they know the same pain we're going through," said Mrs Tam.

"It makes the deaths of our children more important, there's a common thread between us, listening to how similar their child's death was to Josh's, they're all the same.

"Our lives as mothers and fathers have forever changed."

Hoang Tran who died of a suspected drug overdose at knockout Circuz festival December 2017.
Hoang Tran who died of a suspected drug overdose at knockout Circuz festival December 2017.
Diana Nguyen, who died at defqon festival September 2018.
Diana Nguyen, who died at defqon festival September 2018.
Callum Brosnan dancing died of a drug-related at Knockout Games at Sydney Olympic Park
Callum Brosnan dancing died of a drug-related at Knockout Games at Sydney Olympic Park
Family members of Hoang Nathan Tran. Picture: Bianca De Marchi
Family members of Hoang Nathan Tran. Picture: Bianca De Marchi


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