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30 Year Anniversary of the Gillies Hwy Bus Accident


The 30th anniversary of the tragic bus accident will be commemorated at the Ecumenical Memorial Service, at St Monica's on Saturday 4 February at 2.00pm. Cairns High and the P&C Centenary Committee would like to invite all members of the school community especially those connected to and students of the 1987 cohort to this service. 

During the service there will be an opportunity for attendees to speak and lay flowers. Following the service flowers will be returned to the Senior Memorial Area which will be a place of quiet reflection. Afternoon tea will be served in Crosswell Hall. Please email for catering purposes.

Few things shape a whole community like the tragedy of the bus accident which took the lives of eight of our young people thirty years ago. Cairns State High annually commemorates the loss of our eight Seniors, remembers the courage of so many other students who battled the terrain and their own injuries to help their classmates, and gives thanks for the support of emergency services, the school staff at the time and friends and family. I am honoured to be part of the 30th memorial service. I am sure that it will be such a moving ceremony”, commented Mr Chris Zilm, Cairns State High School Principal.

Pastor Adem Xhafer, Senior Pastor Royals Church, Pastor Phil Bignal, Chairman of the Cairns Minister Network, and Pastor Chris Forder, Youth Pastor of The Good Shepherd Anglican Church will be part of the service along with past students from the 1987 cohort, including Niels Briet, current P&C President. Ambulance Officer Barry Akers will speak as well as Mr Chris Zilm, current Cairns High Principal and Sarah Stanford, the school’s Chaplain. Mr Bernie MacKenzie, past Principal, will sing the Lord’s Prayer, as he did at the first Memorial Service.  

On 4 February 1987, 135 Cairns High students were returning back to school in three buses from the Year 12 Camp. The second bus had left 10 minutes after the first and the girls in the back had just finished singing Yesterday by Paul McCartney when the brakes failed and the bus left the road rolling down the side of the mountain. The crash site was less than a kilometre from the bottom of the range.

Students recall seeing seats, people and luggage fly everywhere as the bus rolled approximately six times, until stopping on its roof thirty metres down the slope. The eight that were lost: Jody Keen, Amanda Garrone, Lee-Anne Willis, Mark Fisher, Erica Strooper, Judith Perrem and Elizabeth Zeimer will be remembered “within the hearts and minds of family, friends and far-flung strangers”, (Mr Ben Grossetti, 1987).

Understandably, surviving students suffered severe stress and shock. Despite this, eye witnesses praised their efforts including those who arrived in the third bus to help their class mates.  Some students were noted as ignoring their own pain and injuries to tend to the wounded and dying. One student in particular went on to become a paramedic after graduation.

Upon arrival to the bus crash site an Ambulance Officer radioed for assistance and over 40 SES members, 20 police officers and five doctors were sent. Teachers, firemen and members of the public also helped at a make-shift triage hospital covered by a yellow tarpaulin before students were rope winched to ambulances and helicopters on stretchers.

Passengers of the first bus arrived back to school oblivious to the accident. Mr Bernie MacKenzie and teacher Mrs Penny Weidemann rushed to the crash site to assist. Senior Mistress Mrs Dorothy Graham and Deputy Principal Mr Trevor Gordon remained at the school to coordinate the response. Anglican Bishop George Tung Yep and Cairns Mayor Ron Davis also attended the school to console parents and students. Mr MacKenzie returned to Crosswell Hall before going to Cairns Base Hospital where parents had been directed to await his news. Mr MacKenzie was rewarded for his efforts both on the day and in the years after with a deserved Cairns Citizen of the Year Award in 1988. 

The following poem was written by Mr Ben Grossetti who was the Head of English at the time. This poem was printed on to a plaque and placed in the school’s Senior Memorial Area. 


Heaven wept from swollen black-grief eyes


To witness young lives flung beyond control;


Yet strangely, interspersed with rain, the skies


Flashed rays of bright


Throughout that day.


Rain and sun- sun and rain,


Both symbols of our life.


Life-giving rain, the tears;


Bright sun, vitality.


We need them both.


The tears like misting pain


Fall but to strengthen us;


The warming sun upon our backs


Pulsates our blood, and we must live again.


Though they are gone


We rush to fill the hollow-left


By their abrupt departures;


And they live still


Within the hearts and minds of family,


Friends and far-flung strangers


All around this land. A hush of


Sorrow choked us all,


Together we held hands and felt the surge of oneness,


The Cling of unity.


Let us regard the day without expected dread


But rather we will nurture what they gave to us-


   their freshness in the falling rain.


   their warming rays of sunshine to hold close.


by Mr Ben Grossetti 


Mr Gr

ossetti passed away upon retirement and a Memorial Award was named in his honour.


There is a section in Cairns High The First 100 Years 1917 – 2017 dedicated to this horrific moment that affected so many lives of the Cairns community.