Shock claim in deadly ghost train fire

 

It's been more than 40 years since a dad and his two sons and four young school mates were burnt to death in the notorious 1979 Luna Park ghost train fire.

It is the deadliest tragedy at an Australian theme park, and was an unprecedented and unrepeated horror until four people lost their lives on Dreamworld's Thunder River Rapids ride in 2016.

But when you compare the response following the two tragedies, the differences are stark.

In the latest episode of ABC's Exposed, which is investigating how the deadly fire was allegedly arson, a group of horrified police officers and lawyers claim a criminal conspiracy was likely afoot when the inferno was quickly ruled an accident.

The aftermath of the fire. Picture: Fire Australia‘s First Century Historical
The aftermath of the fire. Picture: Fire Australia‘s First Century Historical

Former Luna Park ride attendant Frank Boitano, who now has his own legal firm, said evidence from that night made it clear: "Somebody got away with murder".

It was just after 10pm on the night of June 9, 1979 that a small fire was first spotted in the depths of the ageing decorations at Luna Park's ghost train.

Flames quickly engulfed the ride, claiming the lives of Waverley College school boys Seamus Rahilly, Richard Carroll, Jonathan Billings and Michael Johnson. Damien and Craig, and their father John Godson also perished in the fire. Mr Godson was found attempting to shield his boys from the inferno.

Craig and Damien Godson died in the ride.
Craig and Damien Godson died in the ride.

 

It took police less than 24 hours to rule the tragedy an accident and blame the fire on an electrical fault.

And, it had barely been nine hours since the final body had been carried from the charred ride for the head investigator to issue a stunning statement.

"There is nothing suspicious about the origin of the fire," NSW Police Inspector Doug Knight said, claiming four witnesses had come forward to say they had seen sparks in the roof.

"We are now satisfied the fire was due to an electrical fault in the building," he told reporters from the scene.

Instead of shutting down the ride and setting up a crime scene, or at the very least stationing armed police outside the ride to maintain some level of respect for a place where seven people had just lost their lives, labourers were brought in the next day to clear the crime scene.

The destroyed Ghost train, hours after the fire. Picture: Fire Australia's First Century Historical
The destroyed Ghost train, hours after the fire. Picture: Fire Australia's First Century Historical

Two days after the fire, Richard Carroll's mother Mary arrived at Luna Park to lay a flower where her son lost his life.

Instead of finding crime scene tape, or officers, or mangled pieces of the ghost train, Ms Carroll arrived to find nothing but the floor left.

"Nothing else," Ms Carroll said.

"I thought it was very unusual, there should've been some forensic stuff going on."

For decades, dozens of witnesses at Luna Park that night, and the families that lost their loved ones, have suspected something - specifically the way police explained away the deadly inferno - was amiss.

But Col Wedderburn, the police prosecutor assisting the coroner at the Luna Park inquest, told Exposed something wasn't just amiss, there was a cover-up going on. One that was deep, far-reaching and criminal.

"If you ran this inquest today, you'd probably have had a different result," Mr Wedderburn said.

"There's sufficient evidence to show that it was done deliberately ... things that were important were stopped, they didn't see the light of day ... police putting blocks on everything.

"I'd direct them to do this and they'd just come back with nothing, dead ends."

Col Wedderburn. Picture: ABC/Exposed
Col Wedderburn. Picture: ABC/Exposed

 

'100 PER CENT GUARANTEE KEROSENE WAS BURNING'

The coronial inquest into the fire, held two months after the fire in August 1979, suggested a discarded cigarette likely caused the huge inferno.

That finding was already a direct contradiction to the electrical fault police were so quick to jump on.

But neither the theory of the coroner or the police was supported by witnesses from that night.

Witness Gregory Chard, who saw fire on the ghost train, told police he smelt kerosene burning in the ride.

"I told the police that and no one was interested," he told Exposed.

"Nothing came out of it."

Mr Chard spent three days at the Coroner's Court during the inquest, but was never called.

"I can 100 per cent guarantee it was kerosene burning," he said. "I can't forget it."

Luna Park ride attendant Frank Boitano also smelt kerosene.

"It smelled not natural," Mr Boitano said. "(It smelt like) burning kerosene."

Frank Boitano was working at Luna Park that night. Picture: ABC/Exposed
Frank Boitano was working at Luna Park that night. Picture: ABC/Exposed

 

'SCARED SH*TLESS': KEY WITNESSES INTIMIDATED

The origin of the kerosene was explained by Les Dowd, another witness from the night of the fire who was at the theme park with a group of friends from a youth home.

Mr Dowd, then a 17-year-old, was standing near a group of "biker blokes" when he heard one of them claim he'd spread kerosene in the ride and lit a match.

Another of the group said "you're a fool for doing that", before he saw the group run towards the exit.

Mr Dowd told police everything he knew, and everything he'd heard the group of bikies say, in an interview at North Sydney Police Station after 2am, a few hours after the fire.

A radio message was sent out to police immediately, to look for the bikie suspects.

But at 12pm on June 10, eight hours after Mr Dowd finished his first interview with detectives, the teen was hauled back to the police station.

Mr Dowd told Exposed he's spent the past 40 years "scared sh*tless", alleging police intimidated him into changing his statement.

"I was bullied into it, 'if you don't change your statement something will happen'," he said, recounting his conversation with the second group of police.

"I just felt so scared, I was scared of the coppers and scared those people would come and get me.

"I fear for my life everyday. I still live with it today in my head."

Les Dowd. Picture: ABC/Exposed
Les Dowd. Picture: ABC/Exposed

Mr Dowd eventually caved and told police he made the entire story up.

He was fined and charged with public nuisance that day.

The Exposed team uncovered seven witnesses who all spoke about the bikies near the ghost train that night.

Multiple said the group made them feel at the very least worried.

"I was a little worried about the bikies that went in just shortly before the fire but I couldn't get in to check on them," Albert Bessell, who was operating the ghost train the night of the fire, told the inquest.

Mr Bessell, who has passed away, said the bikies went on the ride about 10 minutes before the first patron left the ride screaming "fire".

Two witnesses also spoke about hearing one of the bikies claim he'd set a fire in the ride.

Seats of the ghost train after the fire.
Seats of the ghost train after the fire.


Despite a number of witnesses quickly telling police about the group, a radio message sent out early that morning to search for the suspects was not updated.

In fact, at 12pm, when Mr Dowd said he had made up his story about the bikies, despite other witnesses corroborating his account, the radio message was completely withdrawn.

"It would be the worst instance you've ever had for perverting the course of justice," Mr Wedderburn said.

"I feel like someone's pulled the wool right over my eyes, there's a lot of unanswered questions here.

"It's becoming worse and worse."

Retired NSW Supreme Court Judge John Dunford QC, who was also involved in the Luna Park inquest said the worst case scenario was "that the police were attempting to pervert the course of justice".

NSW Police Inspector Doug Knight died in 2008.

The final episode of ABC's Exposed on Luna Park's ghost train will air next Tuesday, March 30, at 8.30pm AEDT

 

Originally published as Shock claim in deadly ghost train fire


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