The split second that ruined lives
THE fatal events of that morning a year ago still replay in his head like a movie. "It's still there. I can still see it. It's never going to leave me." Until about 5am on January 8 last year, it had been an otherwise normal trip.
Trevor Povey was a 30-year truck-driving veteran with a blemish-free record behind the big rigs. He and his nephew were in the cabin of a B-Double laden with bananas and had begun the journey in Ipswich, Queensland, the fresh produce in their cargo bound for the Sydney fruit markets. Their designated route was the Pacific Highway, which wasn't usually Povey's choice.
"It's been years since I've been down the coast way. It's a lot easier going down the New England [Highway] because there's not so much traffic," he said on Tuesday, exactly 12 months on.
It was an overnight drive and the first half of the trip passed without incident. They stopped at Halfway Creek, south of Grafton, in the early hours of that Sunday morning for a coffee break and a safety check of the lights and tyres. "We were there for about 45 minutes, we were in no rush," he recalled.
Once back on the road, Povey can recall the conversation as though he had it only yesterday.
On the approach into Urunga, on the NSW mid-north coast, he began to reminisce about his last visit there with his parents and late sister.
"As we carried on down the road, Timmy and I were talking about when me and his mum were only teens and [our] mum and dad brought us up to Urunga back in the late-1970s," he said. "We knew the area quite well back then."
On the approach into Urunga, there was a near-miss. "All of a sudden a car came around the corner and we thought it was going to hit us . . . but we regained control and carried on."
He relaxed, he wasn't in a hurry. The cargo didn't have to be at the markets until Monday morning. With 24 hours to go they had "plenty of time", he said. They passed through the centre of Urunga uneventfully, but the memories of what happened on the way out of the township are etched on his brain.
"We were coming up the hill and I said to Tim, 'I'll just drop it back a bit, save [the truck] from labouring and hold it, and we can just cruise down and keep to the speed limit or just under and just cruise through'," he said. It was all pretty easy; just another job.
"Next thing you know, I've seen the blue ute come around the corner."
In the headlights of his massive vehicle, Povey recalls what he saw in the blink of an eye. "At first, [the driver's] hand was on the top of the steering wheel and then it just gripped to the right, and his head went down at the same time," he said.
"He passed out behind the steering wheel and [unintentionally] just pulled the steering wheel to the right. All I could do was just stand on the brakes straight away, and wait for the bang."
Povey said he was quite literally standing on the brakes - using the steering wheel as a lever to get his foot as hard as possible on the pedal.
"It was all I could do - there were houses all around, I was just trying to stop. Timmy tried to hit the emergency brakes and that had no effect, and then he tried to steer the truck but there was no way of steering the truck because the truck had stalled."
The ute's driver, David Levett - a 38-year-old father of two - was killed instantly. The blue ute had not only collided with the imposing front of the B-double, but rendered the truck uncontrollable.
"When the ute went underneath, it disengaged everything . . . snapped the front axle on the truck, and broke everything under there. With the front axle twisting like that, it stalled the engine, so we had no power steering. We had nothing."
Their truck was unstoppable. "We got bounced around [in the cabin] and [the truck] ended up going through the first house and then, unfortunately, the second house."
It is here that Povey's life collided disastrously with the MacGregor family, holidaying in Urunga from their South Penrith home.
Peter MacGregor and his wife, Angela, had regularly taken their family on holidays to the mid-north coast and that morning, sleeping in the front room, were their sons, 14-year-old Bruce and 11-year-old Max. The elder sibling would later describe the horrifying moment when the semi-trailer crashed into his bedroom, trapping him and killing his brother.
"I heard the first bang up the road, [got up] to have a look and as I got up and walked towards the wall, the truck and the car came through and the car hit me and pushed me up into the roof," he told Channel Nine. "My arm was stuck between a rafter and a windowsill. I was standing on top of Max in his bed. Dad came through and . . . ripped through the wall, pulled the rafter up, got me out."
Bruce escaped with scratches. But Max, the dux of Jamisontown Public School the previous year, could not be saved.
A crash investigation by the specialist Kempsey unit was forwarded to the State Coroner, who late last year handed down a finding that dispensed with the need for an inquest. Magistrate Paul MacMahon found Max had died from "traumatic asphyxia" as a result of the B-Double plowing into the home.
He noted the blue ute's driver, Levett, had a blood alcohol content of 0.24, identifying this as the major contributing factor to the crash. "It is also likely to be the case that Mr Levett driving at excessive speed and the using of a mobile phone whilst driving were also contributing factors to the collision, however on the material available I am not in a position to make a positive finding in respect of these matters," MacMahon said.
"On the basis of the evidence . . . I am satisfied that the collision was caused by the negligence of Mr Levett and, on balance, there was nothing Mr Povey could have done to avoid the collision or the consequences that followed."
While the MacGregor family declined to be interviewed for this story, it's understood they have accepted Max's death was the result of a horrific, unavoidable accident.
Shortly after his son's death, Mr MacGregor said he simply hoped something good might come out of his family's loss - and it seems his pleas were heard.
Urunga resident John May said the town's vicinity had been a hot spot for accidents for many years, and a fatal accident in the immediate surrounds occurred about once every three months. But in the past 12 months, the speed limit has been reduced from 60km/h to 50km/h, and point-to-point speed cameras are also nabbing those who ignore signs. Construction on the Pacific Highway Urunga bypass has also been prioritised, with work due to begin later this year.
While the speed of the B-Double was not deemed a major factor in the crash, the changes in road conditions have given residents some peace of mind. "It's now safe for people to drive through Urunga," May said.
Despite suggestions to the contrary a year ago, Povey says it's irrefutable he wasn't speeding. He told Fairfax Media the GPS device in his trailer had revealed he was travelling at 58km/h at the time of the accident.
For Povey, drink-drivers are the real problem. "When we found out he was five times over the limit, we knew why he [swerved the way he did] - he just passed out. That's what I saw," he said.
It has been a dreadful 12 months for Povey. He is still recovering from the six broken ribs and punctured lung he suffered in the accident. His father became ill with cancer, and on the day we spoke he was due to bury him. He hasn't driven a truck since that day but hopes to be able to go back to truck driving one day, saying: "That's all I've done."
"I know the whole thing is not my fault, I knew that right before the impact . . . but I feel sorry for the little boy, and David the ute driver. There was no need to do that, get in the ute and drive [intoxicated]."
He has never spoken directly to the MacGregor family, but they passed messages between each other through the police. "They'd ask how I was, and I'd ask how they were, and every time I did I said I'm deeply sorry we couldn't turn the truck around, do something else - but what can you do with drunk drivers?"
He said the message to motorists was simple. "Don't drink and drive. We don't want to see any more lives lost. I was awake at five o'clock this morning. Remembering. For about three to four months after, I was up at five o'clock every morning too, just remembering."