The crash that killed three mates and its ripple effect
IT IS the moment three lives were lost and dozens of lives changed forever.
Eighteen-year-old P-plater Jordan Brown fell asleep at the wheel of his mum's borrowed Mitsubishi Outlander returning from a music festival near Lithgow.
The car crossed onto the wrong side of the Bells Line of Road at Bilpin. It ploughed into an oncoming Subaru driven by an elderly woman.
Ben Sawyer, 19, Luke Shanahan, 21, and Lachlan Burleigh, 17, were in the back seat of the Outlander and died on impact.
Brown and his front-seat passenger Daniel Richards suffered minor injuries, complications from then-84-year-old Barbara McLaren's injuries producing a much worse outcome.
This is a story of the hidden road toll, the other road toll, beyond the raw statistics of how many people die on our roads each year. Every death ripples across family, friends, colleagues, rescuers and counsellors.
In 2015, the year Brown fell asleep at the wheel, 350 people died on our roads. The next year, 380 died, and 391 were killed in 2017.
So far this year 223 families have been shattered.
That afternoon at Bilpin three years ago destroyed marriages, ruined businesses and careers, and crushed hopes and happiness.
GEORGINA SAWYER, 55. LOST SON BEN, 19
GEORGINA Sawyer fell asleep in front of the television that Sunday afternoon in August 2015 in her Freshwater home. She woke shortly after in a panic.
"I looked at the clock and it was 5.30 and I was saying 'just calm down, why are you so upset'. I found out later that was when Ben had passed away on the side of the road."
Tom and Georgina Sawyer had already lost a teenage son, Nathan, who committed suicide in 2010. Georgina thought lightning could never strike twice.
"I never, ever thought Ben was gone because I thought in my brain 'no one ever loses two children, it just does not happen' and it wasn't until police were at the door that I knew."
Matthew, now 24, is the only surviving son.
"He's an only child now," she says.
All three remaining family members suffer post-traumatic stress, a condition that almost claimed Matthew's life as well.
He is recovering from broken bones and a brain bleed after being found at the bottom of Dee Why cliff. Georgina alleges police chased Matt off that cliff in October 2016, one year after Ben died.
"He was in my BMW. Police pulled him over and he got freaked out. They banged on the window but my son drove through the lights, he was driving at 40km an hour, he was clean, sober, no alcohol in his system and he tried to come home, but they surrounded him, the sirens were going."
Police called Georgina and Tom, who went to Dee Why cliff where Matt had jumped out of the car with police in pursuit on foot.
Georgina found her son at the bottom of the cliff.
"We don't know what happened but Matthew has gone over the edge of the cliff. He ended up with smashed front and back pelvis, an ocular surgeon reconstructed his eye socket, and while he was in hospital he had a 900ml bleed to the brain and he had brain surgery," she says.
"If he had been a normal kid he would have said 'here is my licence'; he wouldn't have been so frightened when they banged on his car window. It just goes on and you think there can't be anything more and something else happens. Matthew's fall, it's all related to Ben. The aftermath on top of the grief and everything else, it's extraordinary," she says.
Georgina says they have also lost their building business of 34 years after a falling out with partners. This, too, is related, she says.
People who want to talk to her about her loss push her to the brink.
"It is gut-wrenching, they do the 'oh my god', they say their bit, 'you're so strong' and I'm thinking 'I'm only here because my heart keeps beating, if I had my way, I wouldn't be'."
Three years on and the family is still fighting with NRMA insurance for a nervous shock payout.
"Our lives are ruined, there has been no joy in our life since our kids passed away. We go through the motions and I try to distract myself to manage to cope. All three of us are getting counselling and, according to the NRMA, I'm not affected by Ben's death. Approaching the three-year anniversary and it's an ongoing battle with NRMA."
LEANNE SHANAHAN, 55, LOST SON LUKE, 21
LUKE Shanahan had just returned from a six-week trip in the US. Now he was back on home soil, mum Leanne relaxed. She sent a text to Luke at 3pm that Sunday afternoon and he replied he would be home in Freshwater by 5pm.
"I sat down to watch the news, 5pm had passed, I saw that three boys had been killed on the Bells Line of Road and something just told me it was my son," she said.
"I just sat in the lounge shaking. It was 1.30am when the police car showed up in the driveway. I just remember I saw the police car, them knocking on my door and then I went into breakdown mode and my brother-in-law and sisters took over."
Six weeks after the accident, the single mum tried to go back to her job as a business manager for a wholesale company.
"I was very fragile. It was just a nightmare, I lasted about four weeks and I went on sick leave and then my job was made redundant in January and I was off work for six months while we went through the courts," she says. "I haven't done anything about my son's room. Or his car.
"I know one day I will have to, the world keeps spinning and you can be either be stuck or keep going and I know my son would like me to keep spinning.
"My daughter, she started uni and dropped out after two weeks. I worry sick about her, whether she'll make it home," she says of her only other child, 19-year-old daughter Mikayla.
Leanne now lives with the psychological and physical fallout that has taken a severe toll on her health. "It's been a horrific time, I'll never recover, I have health issues. I couldn't stop crying so now I'm on antidepressants, and I couldn't sleep and now take sleeping tablets, and I have bad stomach issues where I just lose control. I've gone off milk and dairy, but I have to be aware of where I am and (know there's) a toilet nearby."
She has rebuilt part of her working life, doing shifts with her sisters in before-and-after-school care. "I started to work there and I'm still there. I have some sad pangs working with children, but they are delightful to work for and I have no stress or pressure to take home.
"My sisters are both here and it is like my backbone."
MIKE BURLEIGH, 55, LOST SON LACHLAN, 17.
MIKE Burleigh has a handyman page on the internet that says he is a married father of two. He is no longer any of those things.
His marriage broke down, he cannot work and he no longer has any living children. Extraordinarily, he lost both his children in an eight-month period.
Lachlan was 17 and also in the back seat of the car driven by Jordan Brown. Mike had been doing up Lachie's room in their Warriewood home that afternoon of the 30th.
He felt "a kick in the guts" around the time of the accident.
"I just felt this almighty whack in the guts. It was around the time of the accident."
When the police came to the door, his world ended.
"I cried so hard I tore my stomach muscles apart. I was a mess on the floor in a foetal position," he says of that awful day.
Eight months after burying Lachlan, his older brother Jayden, 22, died two days after leaving hospital after treatment for a redback spider bite.
The case has yet to come before the coroner.
Deborah Burleigh told The Sunday Telegraph it was too painful to talk about, but Mike detailed his struggles. "I've got nightmares that are nailing me.
"I need to get out and do some shopping, I've been trying to get out of the house all day but I have difficulty leaving the house, I'm terrified.
"It's coming up to three years and still so much pain."
Mike Burleigh has not worked in over a year and his marriage of 25 years is over. The couple have been separated for a year.
"They say if you lose one child you have a 25 per cent chance of divorce, but two, it's 100 per cent," he said, referring to Harriet Schiff's 1977 book The Bereaved Parent, which put the divorce rate at 90 per cent.
"The job of a father is protection and I couldn't protect little Lachie.
"It just hurts me to the core I could not protect him," he says.
Mike feels he has lost everything, except his faith in God, faith that has helped him find forgiveness for Jordan Brown.
"I don't need to rip into him, he's in jail in his head for the rest of his life. I know he didn't start out the day to kill someone."
What makes him angry, however, is the insurance company, NRMA, which he claims told him that it was Lachlan's fault he died, therefore the insurance company was not liable for a nervous shock payout
"They pretty much said it was their fault they died, because they got in the car," he says.
INSPECTOR Peter Grant from Richmond was the first paramedic on the scene. After 25 years on the job, the Bilpin crash stays with the veteran because the boys were the same age as his own children.
"I found widespread mayhem. The three boys had head and neck injuries that were incompatible with life. They would have died instantly.
"My kids were pretty much the same age and I just felt useless, I couldn't do anything for them.
"It still plays on my mind, when I go to a motor vehicle accident I wonder if I'm going to see the same thing. These three boys had no control over the situation and the flow-on from that job for me was quite shocking.
"I sought help afterwards, had some counselling to make sure I didn't fall into the black dog abyss. We try to empty the bucket before it overflows," the 57-year-old said.
JANE McLaren, 45, feels like she lost both parents in that crash. Her mum Barbara, now 87, had just had lunch with a friend in Bilpin and was heading home to Kurrajong in her Subaru Impreza when she saw "a car spinning towards her".
She survived with a broken ankle, but the subsequent surgery led to a massive stroke.
"My mum was extremely vibrant, her and dad were still at home, still driving, both independent.
"After the stroke they asked dad if he wanted to continue her with fluids and she would die anyway, or take her off fluids and die peacefully, and he said he had discussed this with my mum and he made the decision to stop fluids," Ms McLaren says.
Barbara rallied, despite what the doctors predicted, but the shock of that moment had its effect on Peter McLaren. The 87-year-old's heart stopped six weeks later, just short of the couple's 50th wedding anniversary.
"His death was definitely part of the ripple effect," Jane says.
Barbara was transferred to a nursing home, where she learnt to walk and talk again, but the vibrant women they all knew is no longer.
"The Barbara McLaren we knew and loved died in that accident, we have had to grieve the loss of mum as we knew her. That person never came home again, that new mum at Kurrajong Nursing home, we also love her very much."
JORDAN Brown, now 22, is now in jail serving a six-and-a-half year sentence after he pleaded guilty to dangerous driving causing death and driving under the influence of drugs.
His parents Trish and Eric told The Sunday Telegraph they did not wish to comment.
In a Penrith court in April 2017, the former business administration trainee with Warringah Council told the court of his remorse.
"I honestly wish I had gone that day because they didn't deserve it," he said.
"I feel for those families, they've gone through too much, they don't deserve it either."
The only other passenger who survived, Daniel Richards, did not want to comment.
LINDA Campbell lost her teenage son Andrew 23 years ago and set up the Northern Beaches chapter of The Compassionate Friends. She has provided counselling for Leanne Shanahan.
"It does come at a cost (this work) because you do relive certain aspects. It's the feelings people have about not being able to go on or cope with the grief, and I go back to that time when I was hanging off a cliff. It is life-threatening, that level of grief.
"We look at the secondary costs of losing a child, the cost of your health, the cost of your relationships, even the loss of your identity, who you are and the financial costs because many can't go back to work," she says.
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PROFESSOR Ann Williamson from the University of NSW Transport and Road Safety Research Centre say we need to put more effort into preventing road trauma because of the ripple effect on those left behind who are not counted in statistics.
"It affects the whole community, a death affects the relatives and friends and work colleagues, and few ever get over it - often because it is so out of the blue.
"It really is a life curtailed, it is often very young people and that is a tragedy," Prof Williamson said.
Neurosurgeon Brian Owler fronted the Don't Rush campaign after seeing too many families devastated by road trauma.
"It's not just the fatalities, it's the devastating injuries that change lives forever, the spinal cord and the brain injuries. I don't think families ever recover from a loss, it is so unnecessary and seemingly random, and road trauma is so preventable, and the void that is left can never be filled, it affects people for the rest of their lives," Professor Owler says.
"It's a terrible job to tell someone their loved one has not made it, but it is a split-second decision that cannot only take their life, but their children's as well."
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SOMEONE is killed or injured on NSW roads every 41 minutes and the road toll has been rising for the past four years.
The Sunday and Daily Telegraph have partnered with Transport for NSW to create our Think and Drive campaign to change driver attitudes and behaviour, and slash the toll of tragedy on our roads