Just after 5pm on Thursday June 5 1969, a pedestrian walking home under the railway bridge on Peel Street heard a sound he described to The Courier as the wail of 'a banshee'. The roar of a train racing overhead, sending dust flying at speed, sent him racing from underneath the bridge stanchions in fear of his life.
Above him, the crew of a diesel locomotive prepared for the worst as their train, comprising 20 trucks, hurtled into the goods yard of the Ballarat railway station at almost 60 miles an hour.
They had just splintered the gates of the Humffray Street rail crossing as the locomotive smashed through them. The banshee wail was the train's horn alerting those ahead of the impending disaster.
"The last thing I saw was the gates going up like a bunch of confetti," says former railwayman Henry Alexander McMillan, who was driving the train which crashed.
"That's when I said, 'This is it, Will (Alan Willowhite, the fireman in the diesel with Harry); head down, hang onto yer bloodyself, 'cause we're gonna get tossed around here.'"
Mr McMillan, known as Harry, is 90. He is residing in aged care in Creswick, just across from the street where he was born. For 58 years he lived in Ligar Street, Ballarat, and walked each day to a job he loved so much he willingly signed on for extra shifts when they were offered.
Harry's memory of what happened that afternoon is still vivid. Some of it contradicts what was reported in the paper the next day; some more Harry doesn't want known. Suffice to say Harry took the blame for the crash, and copped the punishment.
"The shunter was a junior; they wouldn't dare blame him," Harry says.
He was bringing the goods train up from Geelong on that Thursday evening in 1969, when he stopped to shunt trucks at Elaine. It should have been a straightforward job for the guard of the train, who was responsible for refilling the Westinghouse air-brakes, Harry says.
"He never put the air back in the train," Harry says matter-of-factly.
"No brakes. When they were short of drivers or guards, they used to pull them out of the yard and use them on the train, and they knew nothing. I mean, he'd been in the yards for a while; you'd have thought he'd have remembered that! But he just hooked it up again after the shunt and never put the air through."
Which was how the junior shunter ended up as the acting guard, and began the saga.
The haul from Elaine to Warrenheip is uphill, requiring no braking, and it's perhaps to Harry's fault that he didn't check the brake pressure indicators in the cabin as he approached the station there. Whatever happened, he says he soon realised they were in deep trouble as they began the descent grade towards Ballarat.
This is it, Will. Head down, hang onto yer bloodyself, 'cause we're gonna get tossed around hereHarry McMillan, engine driver, to fireman Alan Willowhite
"As we went over the hill and past the station, I knew within one minute that we were gone," Harry says.
"I didn't panic; I was only thinking about survival. I had us practising what we were going to do when we went. I said to my mate: 'What will happen is - we're gonna be in a crash, a big bloody crash.'
"So I said, 'We've gotta look after ourselves.' We practised survival on the way down. We got all the old sweaties (sweat rags) out of our bags, put them on the seats, laid down and put our heads on them and put our hands over our heads, so our heads wouldn't knock around in the cabin.
"I said to him, 'Will, we're the only ones who are gonna get bad out of this.'"
The journey to the Ballarat yards would take about five minutes; there was absolutely nothing the men could do. The train increased speed until it was doing about 58 miles per hour (100km/h).
Ahead of them, the Humffray Street gates and signals were against the train, and open to motor traffic, pedestrians and cyclists finishing work for the day. The Ballarat yards were full of goods trucks and locomotives, and yard staff working among them.
Sounding the train's horn all the way in, Harry peered out through the front of the engine's cabin as they approached the old Ballarat East station and the Humffray Street crossing. He could see the two sets of rail points beyond the gates: one on the left leading his train on up the Ballarat main line to relative safety; the other into the crowded yard.
"If the one on the left was open, we were in business," Harry says, "because we'd have gone straight up through the yard and stopped."
It wasn't. Instead, the points were open into the marshalling yards.
"I stood up and saw the bloody points were laying that way, so I said, 'This is it, we're gonna have a crash now, whether we want it or not.'"
The goods train ploughed into a pilot locomotive whose driver, perhaps Henry Ford, had leapt for his life just moments before. The impact threw Harry's train perilously towards the Peel Street embankment.
"I said, 'Oh Christ we're in trouble. I'd said we had no hope if we went in the yard, and we hit that locomotive right on the box. It spun us around, and you can imagine us, the wheels running over rails that way (at right angles to the track). She was a real bouncing kangaroo."
Then - extraordinary good luck. The wheels of Harry's locomotive struck the track of the Ballarat main line, the last line before the embankment, and the engine was pulled straight.
"It sent us up the main line; (we were) saved by 10 feet," Harry remembers.
"What happened after that seems hilarious, because the yard foreman, Les Sharp, he was always a pretty nervy sort of a guy, and he was sitting in his office and we were heading straight for it, him sitting in his chair - so he came out and red-lighted me. Red-lighted me! We passed him at about 30 miles an hour!
"Keith Chisholm was coming out of the diesel shop with another diesel (engine) to go out to the yard, and we hit him head on. And he was a pretty fast runner, Keith. He got about 10 yards from us and he took off. After we stopped, he got up into the cabin with us, and my arms were clasped around the controls. I couldn't let go, I'd been holding on that tight. And he got on and put his arms around me and just clasped my hand."
Astonishingly, no-one was seriously injured in the crash. The destruction of rail trucks was extensive, and track was torn up in the yards. Goods, especially coal briquettes, were scattered widely.
Fifty years later, Harry McMillan says he never realised how lucky he and Alan Willowhite were until he was led from his crashed diesel and saw the wreckage behind him: wheels slowly turning on crushed trucks and fire engines arriving.