This was the Dreamworld carpark as no one ever wanted to see it.

Just before 4pm, in an area where buses would normally have been waiting to carry happy and tired souls home, a scene was playing out that represented the theme park's worst nightmare.

Six ambulances. Ten cop cars. Five fire engines. Four trucks emblazoned with the logos of television stations.

Not to mention a vehicle with the word 'Chaplain' plastered on its front doors and a slogan on the rear ones that couldn't have been more fitting - "Watching out for you when good times go bad."

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Bad times had certainly come to Dreamworld.

Chaplains wait outside Dreamworld after an accident killed four people on the Thunder River Rapids. Photo / Getty
Chaplains wait outside Dreamworld after an accident killed four people on the Thunder River Rapids. Photo / Getty

This icon of the Gold Coast, a place that had brought so many people joy over so many years, was now playing host to fear and tears in equal measure.

"Look at the goose bumps on my legs," said Summer Williams, her voice shaking as she tried to comprehend what she was hearing about people dying on what she described as 'the family ride'.

"I'm just rattled ... I've not stopped thinking that it could have been us."

'Us' was partner Michael Murray and sons Riley, 9, and Cooper, 7. Hailing from Canowindra, a dot in central west NSW, they were laughing their way through another magical day on their Gold Coast holiday.

Then, as they lined up for their second slide at WhiteWater World, the laughter stopped.

"They said they were shutting the whole park down," Michael said. "They just told us to turn around and walk back down."

"You can tell there's been a death," Summer said. "If it was just injuries, it wouldn't feel like this. It's a very sombre atmosphere."

She pulled Cooper a little closer into her hip.

"I hope there are no children hurt," she said. "These kids are the most precious things ever and when it's supposed to be about fun and it ends up in death ..."

Emergency vehicles parked outside Dreamworld. The ambulances weren't needed in the end.
Emergency vehicles parked outside Dreamworld. The ambulances weren't needed in the end.

Summer shook her head in disbelief, her final word left hanging in the air.

The official message came over a loud speaker at 3.45pm.

"Unfortunately Dreamworld is now closing," a voice declared. "Please make your way to the exits as quickly as possible."

The reality check followed.

"If you witnessed anything near the Rapids Ride this afternoon and wish to speak to police, please make your way to guest services."

About the same time, a paramedic drove his ambulance out of the carpark. Another followed a minute later. No lights. No sirens. No mad dash to hospital.

Their place in the carpark was taken by a Toyota Camry, its tail end left to protrude into the passing lane.

Out stepped two men and one woman. Plain clothes. Folders in their hands. Serious looks. The trio walked north and entered the theme park via a gate being watched over by a uniformed colleague. Another three sets of police eyes had arrived to help make sense of the unimaginable.

In the absence of official word about what had happened inside the theme park, theories abounded among the waiting journalists and lingering tourists. A press conference was due to be held but until then no one knew anything for certain.

Then, from Dreamworld's main entrance, a man appeared who clearly did.

Escorted by two uniformed police officers, he walked towards the carpark before firing an impassioned glare at the cameras that turned his way. With a large smear of red dirt on his shorts, he was guided to the back seat of a police vehicle that exited the carpark the quickest way it could - down the wrong way of the entry road.

"That's the dad of the kid (we helped)," 19-year-old Lia Capes said of the hysterical girl they had comforted in the minutes after the accident.

"She said to us it was her family (in the accident). She said 'where's my mum' ... (and) she was calling him 'Dad'.

"He was screaming for his phone ... (and) he just took off down to the ride."

Rescue vehicles in the carpark at Dreamworld, which will remain closed until further notice.
Rescue vehicles in the carpark at Dreamworld, which will remain closed until further notice.

Finally, at 4.45pm, Dreamworld chief executive Craig Davidson strode out of the theme park to face a 30-strong media pack, not to mention the thousands of people watching and listening around the country.

"Dreamworld confirms that at approximately 2.20pm today, an incident occurred on the Thunder River Rapids ride, resulting in the tragic deaths of four people," he read from a prepared statement.

"Dreamworld is working closely with police and emergency authorities to establish the facts around the incident."

People who know Davidson describe him as a good man, one who not only cares deeply about his theme park but the people who work and play there. Days don't come much tougher than this for such men.

"We are deeply shocked and saddened by this and our hearts and our thoughts go to the families involved and their loved ones," he concluded before stepping aside to let the ambulance and police say the very little they could say about a tragedy that will be analysed for months to come.

By the time they were finished, Davidson was gone, back inside the park to no doubt prepare for one of the longest nights of his life.

That said, he would be the first to admit any suffering on his part is nothing compared to the central players in this tragic tale - the four men and women who were just looking for a good time but saw it all turn so bad.