Since 1935, the Ghost Train ride had been a staple at Sydney’s most famous amusement park. The train cars took riders through a labyrinthine, dark tunnel where they were surprised by jump scares and other haunted house-style special effects. These effects caused confusion on the night of June 9th, when some at the park initially smelled smoke coming from the interior of the ride. Since the Ghost Train’s usual attendant was not on duty, the smell was initially dismissed as part of the ride.
But once black clouds began to billow from the entrances and exits around 10:15 p.m., it was clear that something was very wrong. Riders were evacuated from train cars as they emerged from the tunnel, and it was initially believed that all the riders had been saved. But some of the evacuees mentioned seeing empty cars as the train left the tunnel, and by 11:30 p.m., seven bodies had been found inside the remains of the ride. It is believed that those who died had left their train cars upon realizing the ride was on fire, and become disoriented and trapped inside the tunnel.
Six children and one adult died during the tragedy. 13-year-olds Jonathan Billings, Richard Carroll, Michael Johnson, and Seamus Rahilly all perished. Their long-time friend Jason Holman was also on the Ghost Train. Holman has since described being pulled from his train car by an alarmed man before it entered the tunnel, when it wasn’t yet clear that the ride was on fire. His friends had already entered the ride and Holman remains horrified by the image of his friends’ empty car exiting the burning ride on the other side of the tunnel.
The Godson family was visiting Sydney on vacation when John Godson and his sons Craig (four) and Damian (six) decided to use their last few ride tickets on the Ghost Train. Jenny Godson, John’s wife and the boys’ mother, has described the split-second decision that left her the family’s sole survivor: “All of a sudden I got this thought that I wanted an ice cream—it was just the most bizarre thing. I asked the boys if they wanted an ice cream and they said no so off they went with their father and that was that—I didn’t meet them there, they were gone.”
By the time Jenny arrived at the Ghost Train to meet her family, the ride was engulfed. The bodies of John and his children were found soon after in the tunnel.
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The Official Explanation
The exact cause of the fire has never been determined, and remains a source of controversy and pain for the survivors and bereaved. However, investigations conducted in the wake of the disaster did reveal that Luna Park had been cautioned the ride was a fire hazard.
In 1977, the fire brigade had warned the park of the risks posed by the train’s wooden tunnel, which was not equipped with emergency lighting and exit signs. The park had also ignored a warning to install a sprinkler system inside the ride. By 1979, when fire protective measures had still not been implemented, Luna Park was given 12 more months to make the changes. The fire occurred one month after this warning.
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A coronial investigation hypothesized that a cigarette or faulty wiring caused the fire, and that the lack of lighting, signage, and the ride’s confusing interior complicated evacuation. A fire inspector who had reviewed the train in 1977 said of the ride’s interior, “It was a maze [...] It was timber, all painted black…as a matter of fact even with the light on I was bumping into the partitions and the wall. It was a timber ceiling, I would have got lost even with the lights on. The only way I could keep going was to follow the railway track.”
In the conclusion to his investigation, Coroner Kevin Anderson stated that Luna Park had failed its duty of care to patrons, but not drastically enough “to support a charge of criminal negligence.”
In 1987, the National Crime Authority also opened an investigation into the disaster. Although no new evidence was found, the authority did determine that previous investigations had been inadequate or ineffective.
For those who lost loved ones in the Ghost Train fire, closure is complicated by the many questions still surrounding the disaster.
For instance, some at the park that day allege the tragedy resulted from arson. As recently as 2021, visitors and staff who were around the Ghost Train on the night of June 9th, 1979, have described smelling kerosene and seeing a group of men standing around the ride prior to the disaster discussing using “kerosene and matches” to light a fire. One of these men allegedly said “you shouldn’t have done that” just before the fire was identified. Many of these witnesses report feeling discouraged that they were not contacted by officials to share their first-person accounts of that night.
Kathy Dewar, who was working at a Luna Park food stand at the time, says “For me, there were actually two tragedies. First, there was the fire itself. The second tragedy for me was the failed investigation … not having the truth come out. There was so much buried, so many facts distorted and hidden. I am definitely prepared at this point in my life to give a statement to the police. And I really resent the fact that I was not given the opportunity to do that at the time. Anyone who was at the park that evening should have been interviewed by the police and whatever observations they had, what experiences they had, should have been documented and recorded.”
Another theory revolves around Abraham Gilbert Saffron, a crime lord who some claim hired men to start the fire, then paid the lead detective in the investigation to cover up the true cause. Some say Saffron hoped to be able to use the Luna Park land for himself. In 2007, Saffron’s niece claimed her uncle was behind the fire, but that he hadn’t expected anyone to die in the blaze. However, she later denied making this statement. Saffron was also allegedly connected to several other fires that occurred following the Ghost Train disaster.
Luna Park closed following the fire, and much of it was demolished. The site later reopened under a different name before resuming the Luna Park title. Today, the park has new owners, and the Big Top concert venue stands where the Ghost Train once burned. The victims of the disaster are remembered through a plaque on one of the Big Top’s walls. Memorials to the deceased can also be found in Art Barton Park and The Chapel at Waverley College.
The tragedy was revisited in a 2021 documentary series, which investigated the potential involvement of Saffron and the witness accounts about the kerosene smell and group of suspicious men. Ultimately, the series called for a new investigation into the tragedy.
On the 36th anniversary of the fire, Jenny Godson said that she and Jason Holman, each of them the sole survivor of the groups they went to the park with that day, maintained a connection forged by grief:
“We’re very close. It’s like there’s some kind of web that joins us together. We sort of had survivor’s guilt—we’re here and they’re all not.”