Tragedy unites a school community

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

Six days ago, teaching staff from Exford Primary school were in an after-school meeting when they received news that their school bus had crashed less than a kilometre from the school grounds.

But when they arrived at the nearby crash scene, at the intersection of Exford Road and Murphys Road, in the outer-suburban growth corridor of Eyensbury, 44 kilometres west of Melbourne, they weren’t prepared for the carnage.

“Our staff just instinctively wrapped their arms around the kids and provided love and support in a really difficult situation,” said Exford Primary Principal, Liza Campo.

A number of passers-by, including local tradies and the injured bus driver, were already doing whatever they could to rescue screaming children from the bus.

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In the eyes of Victoria Police Superintendent Michael Cruse, the actions were “heroic”.

“To have acted the way they did is really admirable,” he said in a news report at the time. “It’s unimaginable to imagine that the children were in their classrooms and such a short time later so seriously injured so close to school.”

The bus, carrying 46 students aged between five and 11, was travelling west along Exford Road after collecting the children from the school.

The 49-year-old truck driver, who also stopped at the scene to dial emergency services and assist victims, has since been charged with four counts of dangerous driving causing serious injury over the crash.

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Two days after the bus rollover, as news emerged that seven children remained in the Royal Children’s Hospital after suffering life-changing injuries that included partial and full amputations of hands and arms, the Victorian community rallied to bolster the shattered school community.

At popular radio station 3AW, veteran talkback host Neil Mitchell spearheaded an on-air campaign that became known as the ‘Big Hug’. 

What began as a plan by the school’s neighbourhood sporting club – Eyensbury Football Club – very quickly turned into an outpouring of support, and generous donations.

Last Friday night, as the most devastating week in the history of this tight knit school community ended, hundreds of people braved the chilly conditions to huddle together to raise, as one newspaper reported, both “funds and spirits”.

For the injured students returning to the school – some of whom will only be able to do so after months of intensive rehabilitation – the school itself will be forever changed to accommodate the evolving needs of so many of its students.

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Those involved in the fundraiser say that some of the money raised will go towards specialised equipment to help them re-integrate with the classmates.

Mark Heaney, is the club’s football director, and described Friday night’s event as “uplifting and very heartwarming”.

“But, that said, I’m not overly surprised because that school means a lot to everybody around here,” he says.

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]