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The Essendon plane crash that turned grief into a public event

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Essendon 1978: Sam Gulle is supported by friends as the body of his 4-week-old son is lowered into the grave. Photo: Bruce Postle Essendon, July 10, 1978: Catastrophe and comfort, the warmth of the burning plane and the blazing house somehow made a haunting contrast that cold winter’s evening.The plane had hit the house, slewed across the back fence and slammed into the rear brick wall of the backyard neighbour’s place.Three men were still trapped in the wreckage.The ABC television evening news had just started as neighbours rushed with hoses and buckets to put out the fire engulfing the twin-engine Partenavia​ aircraft.But the first house was a conflagration and beyond saving.Inside, six members of the Gulle​ family were trapped. They all perished.

In 1978, communications and emergency responses were far less sophisticated. Those locals who first fought the fire had been summonsed by the bang or the wails of sirens as police, ambulance and fire brigades sat stymied in peak-hour traffic.The three men inside the crashed plane appeared conscious but the heat and the tangled wreckage made it impossible to free them from the wreck.Panicked neighbours hovered between frustration and fear as they tried to wrench the mangled aircraft door open while wondering if the ruptured fuel tanks that had already ignited the Gulle home might blow.Then help arrived. Firefighters struggled for more than an hour with hydraulic “the jaws of life” to cut the last victim from the plane. All three on board were seriously injured.Minutes after the crash, Sam Gulle had returned home from work and watched helplessly as his wife Pauline, their sons Michael, 12, Robert, 6, and Graeme, 1 month, daughter Karen, 7, and Mrs Gulle’s mother Phyllis Toms, died in his home. He’d recently sold the house and was moving his family to a country property at Meredith west of Geelong.When the ambulances left and firefighters said the blaze was under control, I went looking for the telltale PMG red and by 9pm stood shivering in a telephone box up the road from the Gulle home in Matthews Avenue.”For the people, living beneath the flight path of Essendon’s east-west runway, the crash was something they feared every day,” I told the Age copyt…

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