What really happened at the 1979 Luna Park fire

 

"We've written you a letter. But I'm not capable of reading it."

These are the simple words that broke my heart.

I'm sitting opposite Tony Carroll and his wife Mary, both now in their 80s. Seated in the adjoining living room are their three surviving adult children. They are here to support their Mum and Dad.

Behind me, on the mantlepiece in their Sydney home, is the shrine for their dead son and brother, their beloved Richard… Richie. He was only 13 when he died. Richie and his three best friends had gone to Luna Park on a winter's night in 1979.

Investigative journalist Caro Meldrum-Hanna. (Picture: Supplied/ABC-TV)
Investigative journalist Caro Meldrum-Hanna. (Picture: Supplied/ABC-TV)

They never came home. A freak fire had started deep inside the Ghost Train ride at closing time, trapping the four boys as well as John Godson, 29, and his two little boys Damien, six and Craig, four.

Mary and Tony Carroll's 42-year torment is plain for all to see. Tony is trembling. Mary has grown very quiet. Both are visibly exhausted.

As am I.

I've just delivered them the findings of our two-year investigation into the fire that killed their young son. I was physically ill before each of these final interviews with the families of the deceased, knowing the ramifications of what I was about to tell them.

When you go this deep for this long, the pressure and responsibility is enormous.

"I knew it. I knew there was more to this," Mary quietly says to herself.

"I had no idea you would have discovered all of this," Tony says.

“I’m filled with love and gratitude. And a burning desire for justice.” (Picture: Luna Park fire)
“I’m filled with love and gratitude. And a burning desire for justice.” (Picture: Luna Park fire)

For this was no 'accident' that had claimed the life of their son and his friends, as the police had led them all to believe.

Now, a new truth - the real, untold truth - was dawning. As was vindication.

From the living room, Tony and Mary's children come to check on their parents, gently comforting them. They are grieving too, siblings mourning the brother that vanished from their lives, turning their world and their childhoods upside down, changing everyone forever.

Leaving behind an empty bedroom and a relentless grief that hung like a fog throughout the family home.

"You have to get on with life, but when a child dies it's as if you only have one child, that child. Everything becomes about them," Tony had explained to me a year earlier.

In the wake of Richie's death, his young siblings had to learn to live with that paradigm too: of the missing child being the strongest child felt, his absence in death greater than the presence of the siblings still living.

An aerial view of the damage following the fire on the Ghost Train ride at Luna Park in Sydney, NSW, 10/06/1979, which killed seven. (Picture: Bromley)
An aerial view of the damage following the fire on the Ghost Train ride at Luna Park in Sydney, NSW, 10/06/1979, which killed seven. (Picture: Bromley)

Watching children comforting their parents is acutely intimate, but I do not turn away: this display of humanity, of roles tenderly reversed between parent and child, is profoundly special.

They are all processing the same brutal information, the same stark revelations, but their first response is one of love not anger.

In that moment I feel more human than I have ever felt doing my job. I think of my own Mum and Dad, my sisters, my partner, the team I've made this documentary with, of the power of human connection and the gift of family if we're lucky enough to have a healthy and decent one.

I'm filled with love and gratitude. And a burning desire for justice.

And as Mary and Tony's letter of thanks concludes, I hear my exact feelings spring from their mouths, read from their page: "Indeed. Justice to the families for this unforgettable tragedy."

EXPOSED: The Ghost Train Fire airs from 8:30pm Tuesday March 16, March 23, and March 30.

Originally published as What really happened at the 1979 Luna Park fire


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