Remembering the Glenbrook train disaster, 20 years on

For five years after the Glenbrook train disaster which claimed the lives of her grandson Flynn and his mum Natasha from Hazelbrook, Krista Tomas would buy Flynn a present on his birthday and write him a letter.

This helped her imagine the five-year-old growing up and developing new interests, while holding an image of him in her mind.

"It was very difficult and that was a way I could firmly have an image. Ever since then I could imagine him," Ms Tomas said.

The Hunter Valley resident returned to near the scene of the disaster on Monday - 20 years after the tragedy - joined by family and friends to pay respects to the seven people who lost their lives.

On December 2, 1999 at 8.22am, a commuter train from Lithgow smashed into the back of the stationary Indian Pacific at Glenbrook, killing seven people in the front carriage of the commuter train and injuring 51.

The crash also took the lives of Scott Neal, 34, of Springwood; Gail MacKenzie, 55, of Leura; Michael Roberts, 52, of Glenbrook; Paul Marcelino, 55, of Lithgow and Carol Tran, 20, from Auburn.

At just after 8am on Monday, a small crowd gathered to remember their loved ones and pay their respects. They included siblings Andrew Roberts and Melinda Clarke who were orphaned at 17 and 20, when their father Michael Roberts, from Glenbrook, was killed in the accident.

"I talk about both my parents for our daughter so she knows about them and have photos around the house," Mrs Clarke said.

The gathering also included Bill Higgins, the Glenbrook station master at the time, who has marked every anniversary for the past 20 years.

After the disaster the Gazette dedicated four pages to the tragedy, as the community struggled to deal with losing five of its own, but pulled together in true Mountains fashion.

"It wasn't as big as Granville, however every accident that kills a person is big. The ripple effect for the Blue Mountains was huge at the time," Ms Tomas said.

Due to the trauma of the incident, Ms Tomas has few memories from the time, but she does recall attending the inquiry that followed, conducted by Justice Peter McInerney.

"It was a gruelling process," Ms Tomas said.

Justice McInerney made 95 recommendations aimed at turning the culture among NSW's rail organisations into one concerned with safety. Increased training of train drivers, improved communication and the establishment of a rail safety inspectorate were among the recommendations.

He said the accident was "catastrophic" and "avoidable". "Put shortly, this accident should not have occurred," the SMH reported in May 2001.

The families of the victims launched a class action, seeking compensation from State Rail.

"The compensation process is quite distressing. We were quite horrified by the process of compensation," Ms Tomas said.

"It's about justifying why you are making a claim and why you are traumatised."

The case was dropped when State Rail admitted liability.

Ms Tomas describes the path to moving forward with life as a "rocky road".

"That kind of trauma sits in your memory, in your cells. Unless you do some constructive therapy it can destroy relationships. I'm no longer with my partner that I was with at the time."

She went to counselling for two years after the accident, and also tried to travel on trains in the three years after, but experiencing panic attacks she avoided the train for many years to follow.

"Trauma doesn't go away. It's very difficult to completely unravel or offload a trauma like that. You have to learn to manage it, you adapt," she said.

"People get snatched away from you unexpectedly. I'm a very optimistic person, I love life. It took me a good six years to feel like that again."

Ms Tomas left the Blue Mountains in 2010, living in Queensland for several years and recently returning to NSW to the Hunter Valley.

Putting her journey on paper in the book Saying Goodbye to Seahorse and Butterfly, which was published in 2008, has been particularly therapeutic for Ms Tomas, as well as talking about Natasha and Flynn.

"It's a long, slow process and being kind to yourself," she said.

"I have have always felt better for talking about them, because we have a living memory of them. As long as that's still there, that makes them a significant part of our lives and with me."

She described Natasha as a humanitarian, who was always passionate about people, animals and the environment, and was reflective and intelligent, with a wicked sense of humour.

Flynn was a caring and affectionate little boy who was always concerned about other children and animals.

"I still have a vivid memory of him leaning over looking at a dead lizard. His little face filled with sadness and he said 'Oh poor darling. Of course we must bury him Nanna.'"

On Monday, Ms Tomas will be remembering Natasha and Flynn, and celebrating their lives with family over a Christmas lunch.