The newspapers called him “the luckiest boy alive”, but Jason Holman never felt lucky.
“In fact, I felt like shit,” he says.
“My friends, engulfed by flames, died in front of me. Why did I survive? Why me? I ask myself that question nearly every single day.”
Four decades later, Holman is speaking publicly for the first time about the fire that killed his four best friends at Sydney’s Luna Park — and he’s demanding answers.
He was 12 years old when he watched his friends disappear inside the popular Ghost Train ride on a chilly winter’s night in June 1979.
He remembers watching the two carriages in front of him, containing 13-year-olds Richard Carroll, Jonathan Billings, Seamus Rahilly and Michael Johnson, lurch through the entry doors, swallowed by the ghoulish black interior of the ride.
Holman would never see his friends again.
Just as his carriage was about to enter, all hell broke loose.
His friends were trapped inside the labyrinthine Ghost Train, where a small fire had started deep inside the ride. That small fire turned into a raging inferno, engulfing the entire train.
Seven people died: Holman’s four school friends, as well as Craig Godson, 4, his brother Damien, 6 and their father John, 29. The bodies of the Godsons were found huddled together, John’s arms outstretched in a desperate final attempt to shield his two little boys from the blaze.
The police quickly wrote the fire off as a terrible accident, announcing an electrical fault.
But suspicions, conspiracies and rumours have lingered for 42 years.
Holman, now 54, has spoken exclusively to the ABC’s returning investigative documentary series EXPOSED, determined to find answers about what really happened to his four friends that night.
“I chose to talk about this, and to enter into it and it’s going to be tough,” Holman says.
First night out without parents
For Holman and his friends, their night out at Luna Park was the biggest night of their lives.
It was the first time they had been allowed out without parental supervision.
“It was our first night out as a group of what we thought were young men, being given the permission and responsibility. And we knew how important it was.”
The boys begged their parents to be allowed to go out unaccompanied. Finally the adults relented and said yes.
“It was hard to get permission, very hard. And I remember it went on for weeks,” he says.
“We were heading to Luna Park. And it was like the biggest thing I’d ever experienced in my life.”
As closing time approached, the boys had time for one last ride before they needed to head home to their waiting parents.
They decided to take a ride on the Ghost Train.
Jonathan and Richard boarded one carriage, Michael and Seamus the next while Holman sat alone in a carriage behind his mates.
“We waited, we were patient, we were still excited, still nervous, probably had too much sugar,” Holman recalls.
He watched his friends disappear through the swinging entrance doors marked “Hell’s Doorway”.
But the moment Holman’s carriage nudged the doors, an attendant yanked him out of his seat.
“There was just a man with panic written all over his face,” Holman says.
From the outside of the Ghost Train, nothing appeared out of the ordinary. There was no smoke, no fire, no clues that anything was amiss. But inside, a thick, black smoke was quickly filling the ride.
Soon, the smoke began to creep out from the entry and exit doors. Passengers began stumbling outside, kicking down partition walls and finding the fire exit door to safety.
Then, the screaming began.
“As I’m retreating, the smoke, the flames, the absolute mayhem starts to kick in,” Holman says.
He describes standing outside the Ghost Train, watching passengers come out, waiting for his friends to emerge from the ride too.
He then saw an image he’s never been able to forget: empty carriages coming out, in flames, travelling along on the mechanical track.
In a matter of minutes, the ride exploded with fire.
“This fire was something different. This fire was just nuts, out of control … and massive, dwarfing us,” he recalls.
The noise was deafening. Holman began to spiral.
“After viewing that inferno, I’ve started to cry, wee myself, have the start of the meltdown. I’ve just lost it.”
At 3:00pm the following day, the police announced that the cause of the fire was an electrical fault.
“That’s what I was fed … of course I believed it … the police said it.”
But that long-held belief radically changed when Holman met Martin Sharp.
A man on a mission
Sharp was a respected Australian artist, famous both at home and abroad for his work.
But his greatest love was Luna Park, which opened in Sydney in 1935. He repainted the iconic Luna Park face and helped restore the funfair in the mid-1970s.
By the time the fire tragedy struck in 1979, Luna Park was a vibrant and enormously popular theme park.
Sharp was devastated by the fire and the enormous loss of life, which shattered Luna Park’s reputation as a safe and happy place that was “Just for Fun”, as the slogan went.
“Martin did not believe that it was an electrical fault that started the fire. And so he started to investigate the case,” Holman says.
“In doing so, he got all of this information together.”
Sharp began collecting files and documents.
His private trove of materials was released exclusively to the ABC’s EXPOSED program by the Martin Sharp Trust five years after his death.
The sprawling archive includes tape recordings, coronial files, court materials, police reports, confidential documents and unheard testimony from eyewitnesses, police officers involved in the investigation and former Luna Park staff.
“Martin had this amazing ability to collect and then do his own research, but he would go looking where most people wouldn’t go looking,” Holman says.
Sharp’s archive formed the basis of his unwavering belief that the Ghost Train fire was no accident, but a deliberate and premeditated act of arson.
“They do not want to admit that something so horrific could have been done, that those people could have been burnt alive on purpose. Now people do not want to believe that,” Sharp told reporters at the time.
Where to from here?
In the years that followed the Ghost Train fire, Sharp would go on to befriend Holman and another survivor, Jenny Godson.
Godson lost her entire family in the fire. Her two young sons, Craig and Damien, and her husband John had chosen the Ghost Train as their final ride for the night. Her life was spared because she decided to grab an ice-cream instead of riding the train.
As the years went on, and inquiry after inquiry brought no relief or answers, the three of them —Godson, Holman and Sharp — became bound in a collective grief, determined to resolve the mystery surrounding the blaze.
When Sharp died in 2013, Holman and Godson lost their greatest ally.
They made it their mission to carry on Sharp’s work, searching for the truth.
“I’ve been trying … to get justice for my friends and their families,” Holman says.
“A terrible, terrible accident. That’s what they said. But was it?”
EXPOSED: The Ghost Train fire airs at 8:30pm, Tuesday, March 16 on ABC TV and iview.