On June 9, 1979, the ghost train ride at Sydney’s Luna Park erupted into flames, killing six young boys and one of their fathers.
The tragic incident has long been debated, with numerous conspiracies arising as to how the fire started and has recently become the focus of ABC’s investigative documentary series EXPOSED: The Ghost Train Fire.
In the series, survivor Jason Holman recounts the story of how his friends Richard Carroll, Jonathan Billings, Seamus Rahilly and Michael Johnson — all 13 years old — lost their lives on the park’s most popular ride.
Holman was in a carriage that was about to follow his friends’ into the ride when he was yanked out of his seat by a panic-stricken man.
“I didn’t see any smoke at that point,” Holman said in the documentary. “I didn’t see any flames and I didn’t hear any screams of anguish or pain.”
That soon changed as smoke began to seep out of the ride and screaming began to emanate from within it. Holman revealed that, to this day, he is haunted by the image of empty carriages exiting the ghost train, an ominous sign that his friends had not made it out alive.
“This fire was something different. This fire was just nuts, out of control … and massive, dwarfing us,” he told the ABC before revealing that at 3 pm the following day the police announced that the cause of the fire was an electrical fault and that the whole thing had been a terrible accident.
Something Doesn’t Add Up
For some, the idea that the horrific fire was simply an accident never quite rang true.
In fact, multiple witnesses have come forward in the intervening years to reveal that they had seen a group of men that they deemed to be suspicious and had smelt kerosene on the night of the fire.
Some of those witnesses confessed to the ABC that they had felt pressure to change their original statements about what they heard and saw when speaking to NSW Police — a curious revelation given that Detective Inspector Doug Knight dismissed all witness accounts and decided the fire was caused by an electrical fault.
Les Dowd was one such witness who was 17 years old on the night of the tragedy. Speaking on EXPOSED for the first time about his experience, Dowd is adamant that he heard a group of male teenagers talking about arson just moments before the fire erupted.
Dowd said that he offered that information to the police and that they had commenced a search for the group of young men, but was later bullied into retracting his original statement.
Dowd’s statement about what happened that night was echoed by fellow witness Tina Shakeshaft, who was 14 at the time.
Speaking about the group of young men she says she saw near the ride before it was destroyed by flames, Shakeshaft said, “I heard one of them say, ‘You shouldn’t have done that’ — or something very similar. Another one said, ‘Come on, let’s split.’”
The group of people seen by Dowd and Shakeshaft were never found.
An Entire Family Gone
For Jenny Godson, there is no doubt that the fire — which claimed the lives of her husband John and two sons Craig, 4, and Damien, 6, — was the work of arsonists.
It’s a theory she has been working to prove with fellow survivor Holman, and late artist Martin Sharp whose own investigation and collection of evidence were pivotal in making the ABC docu-series.
“I’ve been trying … to get justice for my friends and their families,” Holman — who escaped death only because she was overcome with a craving for an ice-cream — said.
“A terrible, terrible accident. That’s what they said. But was it?”
Accident? Or Organised Crime?
Another theory that has circled the tragedy was that it was orchestrated by crime boss Abraham Gilbert Saffron, who ordered the fire to be lit to force out the park’s then-leaseholders, leaving the way clear for him to swoop in with one of his own developments.
Paul Egge, a former detective senior sergeant and analyst with the NSW Police Bureau of Crime Intelligence reveals in EXPOSED that he firmly believes Saffron was behind the fire, having ordered a group of men to torch the park.
Even Saffron’s own niece told the Sydney Morning Herald that her late uncle was behind the fire but that “I don’t think people were meant to die”. She later retracted her statement.
Former senior police offers say that Saffron, who was known as “Mr Sin” was able to get away with the horrific crime because he was assisted by lead detective Doug Knight, who acted as the gangster’s “fixer.”
EXPOSED alleges that Knight falsely blamed the fire on an electrical fault as he was being paid to do so by at least one organised criminal.
Saffron died in 2006.
A New Inquiry
42 years after the events of that awful night, calls for a new inquiry into the tragedy have been made with NSW Opposition leader Jodi McKay standing in solidarity with the families of the victims.
With evidence mounting that the fire was started at the behest of Saffron, former NSW chief magistrate Clarrie Briese is calling for a royal commission into the fire.
“There is no question about it,” Mr Briese said.
“What this new evidence establishes is that these young boys lost their lives as a result of a fire, which was deliberately lit and apparently deliberately lit at the request of Saffron.”
While an inquiry or royal commission, should either of them go ahead, will not bring back Richard Carroll, Jonathan Billings, Seamus Rahilly and Michael Johnson or John, Damien and Craig Godson, it could provide their grieving families with some much-needed closure, at last.
Pleads Jenny Godson, “Please set the truth free.”