Loud, chaotic, dark: a trip through the swinging doors of Hell’s Railway promised the “creepiest spine-tingling ride of your life”.
One of the most popular attractions at Sydney’s Luna Park, the Ghost Train yanked passengers along a 180-metre electric track full of hairpin turns.
The ride was lined with scares like the dancing skeletons at this bend.
Then — after the ape monster, the dragon’s head and the graveyard Dracula — a skeleton sat up in a box.
“You’ll shiver and quake on the Ghost Train,” the ride soundtrack cackled.
For most of the two-and-a-half-minute ride, it was nearly pitch black.
The darkness helped hide the age of a ride that ran for nearly 45 years without incident.
For an instant, passengers emerged outside into a caged area before re-entering the ride, passing an imitation fireplace complete with fake flames.
But on a winter’s night in 1979, passengers noticed something strange. The “imitation” fire was hot. The flames were real.
Smoke rose high above the harbour when an inferno erupted at Sydney’s “Just for Fun” theme park on June 9, 1979.
Six boys and one father were killed.
The cause of the fire has never been found and now, 42 years later, many suspect foul play.
Through interviews with dozens of witnesses — many of whom have never spoken publicly before — including Ghost Train passengers, Luna Park staff, firefighters and police, part one of the ABC’s investigative documentary series EXPOSED has reconstructed the night of the disaster.
The police at the time claimed the fire was an accident.
But family members of the victims, as well as eyewitnesses to the fire, have long believed that arson caused the blaze.
Former Luna Park staff have described a ride that ran like clockwork and had no history of fire trouble.
Witnesses recalled shooting flames that “didn’t look normal” and a series of explosions — all beginning with the mystery of a real fire within a fake one.
Sue Manning, then 19, was social director of a Bankstown youth group and had chosen a trip to Luna Park as the night’s activity.
She was riding the Ghost Train toward the end of the evening when her carriage swung around a bend and she saw fire.
The flames were small, glowing within an imitation fireplace set into a corner of the ride.
As her carriage swept past, Manning felt an urge to hold out her hand — then quickly drew it back.
“Whoa,” she said to her friend. “That feels like a real fire.”
Her friend told her not to be stupid.
Their ride finished and Manning stepped out into the cool evening, looking for the rest of her group on the main strip of Luna Park.
Then she saw a carriage emerge from the Ghost Train, empty and on fire.
Minutes later, the ride was engulfed in flame.
“The whole place just went whoosh!” Manning says.
A dark maze
Left, right, left, right, right, left, left, left, right, right, right.
Tony Jacob could walk the Ghost Train track with his eyes closed.
When he wasn’t clipping tickets, the 16-year-old was inside with a torch, clearing out chip packets and bottles discarded among the props.
It was dark inside with only fluoro paint on the walls and some ultraviolet lights.
There was nothing modern about the ride, which was first built in South Australia, then packed up and carted to Sydney in 1935 along with the rest of Luna Park.
A maze of timber, masonite and hessian, the Ghost Train employed props made of plaster, while a spiderweb-like fabric trailed through passengers’ hair.
“It was a very popular ride,” Jacob says.
“Everybody had to do the Ghost Train at least once during a session.”
Luna Park was usually buzzing on Saturday nights. But on this particular Saturday — June 9, 1979 — it was quiet.
It was winter and a strike by transport workers had brought Sydney’s train network to a standstill.
The queue was short when a group of five schoolboys lined up for the Ghost Train, right on closing time.
(From top left) Seamus Rahilly, Richard Carroll, Jonathan Billings, Michael Johnson and Jason Holman.
One of the boys, Jacob remembers, had a bucket of hot chips and was flicking them at his laughing friends.
“They were so happy,” Jacob says. “They were having a really good time.”
Last ride after a big day out
Rugby, then mass, then Luna Park. That was the deal. The boys would play their Saturday games for Waverley College in the under 12s and 13s, then attend mass at St Mary Magdalene’s Church in Rose Bay, in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.
The 324 bus took them down to Circular Quay, where they jumped on a ferry to head across the water, toward the giant face of the theme park entrance.
As usual, Jason Holman was tagging along, the 12-year-old annoying his friends Richard Carroll, Michael Johnson, Jonathan Billings and Seamus Rahilly, all in the grade above.
“I was the little hanger-onerer,” Holman says.
To be out on his own with “the boys”, full of sugar, carrying the back scratcher he won at the shooting gallery — it was the best night of his life.
Outside the Ghost Train, beneath the “Hell’s Railway” sign, a row of clocks showed haunted time zones, from Vampire Valley to Hangman’s Hill.
Sydney time was 10:10pm. Late for boys who had never been out at night without parents before.
Late, too, for the Godson family, in Sydney for a holiday from Warren in country NSW.
It had been a long day. Already Damien, 6, and Craig, 4, had watched a pagan parade near the Opera House, visited Taronga Zoo across the harbour and turned white on the Big Dipper at Luna Park.
“We were all pretty tired but it was magic,” their mother, Jenny Godson, says.
When their father John said the boys could choose one more ride they shouted “Ghost Train! Ghost Train!” Jenny Godson watched her husband and sons tear off, down the steps from Coney Island and across the park.
Godson decided to buy an ice cream. She would catch up with them after the ride, she thought.
An act of ‘total deviousness’
Geoff Farlow was a teenager doing “17-year-old boy things”, hanging out at Luna Park with his school friends smoking cigarettes — but not on the Ghost Train.
The sign near the entrance was clear: “No Smoking”.
Inside the ride, when Farlow arrived at the imitation fireplace he saw small flames, real ones, flickering at roughly the height of his passing carriage.
“It was just the perfect picture,” Farlow, who was never interviewed by police, tells EXPOSED.
“It was a fireplace with a little fire”.
Farlow thought it was all part of the show. He said nothing to the ticket clipper or the ride operator in his lolly-striped blazer who kept pushing the cars through.
Betty Schultz, a 14-year-old passenger, remembers it was dark inside except for a fire “about the size of a shoebox”.
“I just thought it was part of the attraction,” she says. “I didn’t realise that it was a real fire happening.”
Four decades later, the heat is still vivid for Sue Manning, who reached over and held her hand above the fake fireplace as she passed.
She, too, said nothing when she disembarked the ride, thinking it was a deliberate effect.
But at the time, it bugged her. “Why,” she wondered “would you have something real inside this ride, because everything’s meant to be fantasy?”
The late artist Martin Sharp, who repainted the face of the Luna Park entrance in the early 1970s, also came to see something sinister in the fire’s origin point.
For decades he pursued an amateur investigation, analysing coronial files and morgue reports, conducting witness interviews and recording material on hundreds of cassette tapes, which the Martin Sharp Trust has shared with EXPOSED.
On one tape, Sharp reveals he originally thought it was “an amazing coincidence” that a real fire had begun in an imitation one.
But he then grew convinced that it indicated an act of “total deviousness”.
“All those people who went through were fooled by it,” Sharp mused.
“So the alarm wasn’t given until it was too late.”
Ride ‘performed faultlessly’
Paul Callaghan says the Ghost Train was a bit like a trusty old Toyota — “it would just keep on keeping on”.
“Apart from the occasional replacement of a fuse, it just performed faultlessly,” says Callaghan, a Luna Park attendant who had worked on the train.
It was so reliable that the fire caught him completely off guard.
“How the flame got there, now this is the big question, isn’t it?” Callaghan says.
Luna Park management was yet to install emergency lighting on the Ghost Train, after the local council granted a deadline extension.
A coroner later found a “marked reluctance” among management to spend money on fire safety measures, such as fire sprinklers.
But by June 1979, government officers had inspected the Ghost Train three times in six months, looking for structural, mechanical and electrical issues.
Each time they found the ride satisfactory.
Inspectors found no bare wiring, broken switches or other elementary problems with wiring.
Another report, by a firm of electrical and mechanical engineers the year before, also gave the ride the all clear.
“I know that there was some bad press about attitudes towards safety at the place, particularly amongst management, but I would totally reject that,” says Gary Moss, who was working on the Hurricane ride that night.
“There certainly was, in my mind, no cavalier attitude.”
Moss says staff routinely stopped rides to perform repairs and there were always tradespeople and electricians to call upon.
“There were never any recriminations if we did that.”
As for the Ghost Train, it was so old it had few powered exhibits.
The imitation fireplace consisted of red and yellow lights shining on silken streamers blown by a small fan underneath to conjure the illusion of dancing flames.
A University of Sydney electrical engineer later found malfunction of the fan’s motor was unlikely to have caused a fire.
Another theory was that a flicked cigarette may have landed within the imitation fire cavity, kindling rubbish gathered within.
But no passengers on the Ghost Train reported seeing smokers or smelling cigarette smoke on the night of the fire.
Brett Houlton, who worked the afternoon shift on the Ghost Train on June 9, 1979, says it was policy to clear out litter at the start and end of every session. His boss was vigilant about it.
“Saturday was exactly the same, we would do it before we started the ride, the end of the ride, make sure it was clean,” he says. “Litter wouldn’t build up at all.”
Houlton recalls no fires, sparking or major electrical problems during his time on the ride.
After working through the afternoon, Houlton left for a friend’s 21st birthday party. He had told his bosses well in advance but management didn’t roster a replacement for the evening shift.
Without him, there was no attendant to patrol inside the Ghost Train.
Plucked from the carriage
Jason Holman, the fifth wheel in his group of Waverley College friends, stood lined up behind the others.
Each Ghost Train carriage fit two passengers. Holman’s neighbour Jonathan Billings climbed into the first with Richard Carroll.
Next went Seamus Rahilly and Michael Johnson.
Holman watched his friends’ carriages burst through the front doors to enter the train, one after the other.
He waited alone in his own carriage, which nudged the wooden doors, before a ride operator grabbed him, lifting him out of the carriage and over a railing.
“Put me down!’ ” Holman remembers shouting. “What the hell are you doing? I’m supposed to be following those guys!”
Around this time Jenny Godson had drifted back to the Ghost Train with her ice cream, looking for her husband and two sons.
She couldn’t see them anywhere. But she could see smoke rising from the ride.
“I started to feel really strange,” she tells EXPOSED. “I had the ice cream in my hand, I couldn’t eat it.”
Watching the smoke grow thicker, she flung the cone away.
Screams, flames and thick smoke
“People will scream and you know that they’re having a joke,” says Frank Boitano, an attendant who was working on the Water Scooters ride that night.
“But sometimes you hear screams and it’s absolute terror.”
Boitano heard terror after 10pm, when he stopped on his way back from a break to say hello to his friend Tony Jacob, clipping tickets on the Ghost Train.
Around the same time the pair heard screaming, they saw thick, black, smoke begin to pour out the exit door. It smelt toxic.
Jacob entered and Boitano followed. They switched on the overhead lights within the train, then kept following the track, looking for the internal doors that could help passengers cut through the labyrinth of walls.
Boitano managed to open a set of double doors, then the fire escape doors, allowing people to get out.
But when he tried to follow his friend deeper into the train, the smoke forced him back outside.
“I felt like I was actually choking,” he says.
In one section of the Ghost Train, the track came out into the open for an instant, letting passengers wave at their friends from behind a cage of diamond-wire fencing.
“I saw shooting flames coming out of this cage,” Boitano says.
“They were shooting out as if they were being fan forced out of the cage. It just didn’t look normal. It was just too ferocious.”
Jacob had gone further in, holding his shirt over his mouth. Later, he received a commendation for his bravery, alongside two passengers, Ralph Schiano and Kate Partington, who all helped passengers escape.
Jason Holman, standing outside, was forced back by the heat.
“This fire was just nuts,” Holman says, “quickly out of control and massive, dwarfing us.”
He was still holding the back scratcher he had won, still waiting for his friends.
“I hadn’t seen them come out of the doors,” he says. “I’m thinking, there’s no other way in or way out.”
Witnesses heard a series of bangs and crashes, culminating in one final explosion, much bigger than the rest.
Smoke as ‘black as tar’
“This doesn’t look good,” Peter Welsh remembers thinking to himself, as he sped down the hill from Crows Nest in a fire engine.
“We could just see a column of red fire in the night near the water.”
Welsh — the state’s longest-serving firefighter when he retired after 48 years — says the Luna Park fire was one of the worst he ever attended.
Staff and patrons had struggled with tangled fire hoses and weak water pressure. Crews began pumping water from the harbour as flames climbed the Big Dipper roller coaster. The smoke was “black as tar” and the heat ferocious, far too intense to send firefighters inside the Ghost Train.
Welsh says they were working with next to no information. Were there people still inside?
After containing the blaze, he and his colleagues began to pick their way through the smoking ruins.
‘I want to know how they died’
A policeman drove Jason Holman home to his mother, who thought he must have been in trouble with the police. In the early hours of the morning, the parents of Holman’s friends gathered at the park gates, shivering in the cold as they waited for news.
Firefighters soon found the bodies of Michael Johnson, Seamus Rahilly and Jonathan Billings toward the entrance of the ride, metres apart. The body of Richard Carroll lay further toward the centre.
Holman made it home without so much as a scratch. But he has spent a lifetime living with the guilt of survival and suspicions about the cause of the blaze.
“I think there’s been some sinister behaviour,” he says.
Further toward the rear of the ride, John Godson’s body lay beside those of his sons, Damien and Craig. His arms were stretched out toward them.
The seven victims had died of burns and smoke inhalation.
Jenny Godson was ushered outside the park with the rest of the crowd. A radio journalist approached with his microphone, wanting to know when she had last seen her family, what she had done to find them, what police had told her, how old her sons were.
“There was a small part of me that knew,” she tells EXPOSED. “The reality hit me.”
Like Holman, Godson initially accepted police claims that an electrical fault sparked the fire.
But she, too, strongly suspects foul play.
“I want to know how they died,” she says. “I want to know the truth.”
Caught up in the mass of patrons ordered to leave the park, Sue Manning was exiting through the laughing face when she noticed a woman sitting on the ground nearby.
“She was sobbing on her own,” Manning says.
“We didn’t go near her. No-one went near her. No-one.”
Manning wishes she had stopped to comfort her.
It was only later that she realised who this woman was: the mother who lost her entire family.
Watch EXPOSED: The Ghost Train fire tonight at 8:30pm on ABCTV and iview.
The Ghost Train footage in the introduction of this story uses footage supplied by the National Film and Sound Archive; the track diagram was produced by Julius, Poole and Gibson consulting engineers. The features depicted in the diagram are based on the recollections of Luna Park staff.