Generations of Australians and particularly Sydneysiders have vivid memories of Luna Park. Its wide-smiled toothy-faced entrance to a world of fairy floss, bright lights, shrieking, squealing, stomach-churning roller coaster rides, dodgems, and the old-world funfair of Coney Island. But beneath this colourful carnival, there is also darkness.
As many in the Waverley community know, 2019 marked 40 years since the Luna Park Ghost Train fire. People may remember that our College flags were lowered to half-mast in remembrance of the seven Australians who perished in this fire on Saturday 9 June 1979. Waverley was deeply impacted by this tragic event, with four Year 8 students killed. They were: Richard Carroll b. 18/4/1966, 13 years; Michael Johnson b. 20/8/1965, 12 years; Jonathan Billings b. 5/12/1965, 12 years; and Seamus Rahilly b. 7/9/1965, 12 years.
Thousands of students, past and present, will remember walking past these plaques. At Waverley, we still feel for the families who never saw their sons again after this heartbreaking winter evening.
In 2019 Old Boy Peter Frost, a teacher at Waverley in 1979, elaborated on his memory of the event to Principal Graham Leddie:
“The four boys were very solid friends and their parents had given them permission to go to Luna Park on Saturday evening and to stick together. There were four boys who boarded the Ghost Train ride while another was turned back because the train was full. The ride caught fire and was completely destroyed and all four boys were tragically killed.
The whole community was shocked by the tragic deaths and there was a massive sympathetic response, especially from other schools. In particular, the other CAS schools all responded with offers of support and prayers. The funeral of the four mates was held at Saint Mary’s Cathedral. One of the most moving sights at the Mass was the procession of the four coffins with the boys’ rugby jerseys on each one. The sense of grief and support for the families was overwhelming and the whole congregation shared in the deep sense of loss.”
Old Boys at the College were always told that the event was a horrific accident because police reported that the fire was the result of an electrical fault. At the time, an inquest delivered an open finding due to insufficient evidence.
But in the ensuing years, rumours surfaced that the fire was deliberately lit. Over several decades the late Sydney artist Martin Sharp (d.2013) collected evidence in his home archival library that sought to confirm it had been a calculated act of arson to obliterate Luna Park and make the site available for redevelopment. And in 2007, investigative reporter Kate McClymont reported claims that Australian gangster Abe Saffron was responsible for the fire, after speaking with both his niece and victims’ families.
In recent months, investigative journalist Caro Meldrum-Hanna reinvestigated the circumstances surrounding the fatal Ghost Train fire. Combining the insights and evidentiary material of Martin Sharp and Kate McClymont with her own fresh research, she brought to light new witness accounts and allegations that corrupt NSW police covered for Saffron. In her resultant three-part ABC television documentary ‘EXPOSED: The Ghost Train Fire’, that aired in March 2021, Meldrum-Hanna’s investigation confirmed that the fire was indeed the result of arson.
Many Old Boys made contact with the College following the airing of this moving, harrowing documentary, concerned that justice had not been delivered. Thousands of Australians were also deeply disturbed by Meldrum-Hanna’s findings. They voiced their concerns on Social Media and through platforms such as Change.org, supporting victims’ families, witnesses and former police, calling for the NSW Coroner to open a second inquiry. At the time of publication, the NSW Coroner Ms Teresa O’Sullivan is considering whether a new inquest should be held.