Thursday, December 25, 2014

Devastation in Darwin

Forty years ago today, Cyclone Tracy devastated the Australian town of Darwin, destroying 80% of houses, making 41,000 out of the 47,000 residents homeless, and killing 66 people. The Age newspaper called it a ‘disaster of the first magnitude . . . without parallel in Australia’s history.’ I was there, having arrived from Bali just a few weeks earlier after spending six months travelling across Asia. I’d got a job working in the power station, and I had a room in a house of travellers owned by Dutch Peter. It was Christmas Eve when the wind started blowing, and most people expected Tracy to veer away from land -  like a cyclone earlier in the year - but in the early hours of the morning of Christmas Day it struck with a vengeance, blowing at over 100 mph. Around 3 in the morning, after the eye had given us all a few minutes peace, Dutch Peter’s house exploded, the wooden walls and all its contents, including us, were catapulted into the night. What follows is my (rather poorly written) diary account of that night and the following few days.

24-30 December 1974
‘And suddenly it is Christmas Eve. Work [I was employed by the local power station] isn’t really work (yesterday it was quite interesting - we had to take the complete two ton end of the cylinder off - I was a little afraid the hoist wasn't going to hold). I finish work at 12:00 and then at 2:00 there’s a nice little work social at the Rugby Union club - beer as free as the air and a constant flow of steaks. I talk to a range of people including the foreman - I am really pissed. He invites me round to lunch tomorrow - I am beginning to get blotto - the beer is running out but he keeps giving me cans - at one point he informs me about the cyclone heading straight for Darwin. I've no idea how I get home. Later, Gus tells me I shouted ‘the cyclone’s really coming’ and passed out, and that all attempts to wake me for dinner were in vain.

I wake early in the evening and go upstairs with a splitting headache. I sleep some more until I wake up absolutely soaking - the rain is howling in through the window and the floor is flooded. I join the others downstairs - it’s pretty bad here too. For some reason we all go to Peter’s room or the room behind it, at least it’s dry there. The wind is getting pretty heavy - Wayne is fairly drunk and jolly - doors are banging - the wind continues to get stronger. We make expeditions outside - first one, just after midnight, is to see why a car has stopped - it is virtually impossible to walk, the wind is so strong. Inside again, I go to fetch my diary and clutch onto it - things are getting a little serious - I suggest going to the hospital or somewhere safe, but there are no takers. I fetched my ‘mustn’t lose’ things such as money, passport etc and put them in a plastic bag with the diary. I sleep a while along with Pete and Go and Gus - Wayne falls asleep in the cupboard - Paul and Susie are asleep in the other dry room. When the eye comes, sometime between 2 and 3, it is a chance to sleep undisturbed

When the eye has passed, the wind comes back with a vengeance in the other direction blowing against the windows of the room I’m in - the gusts reach a tremendous force (from virtually nothing at all in a matter of minutes) - Gus is still half asleep, I wake him and he jumps in the cupboard with Wayne - Go and I have drawers over our heads and we crouch down behind the bed - we can’t get out of the room, the door won’t open - the whole wall is going to go - Jesus - I reach up with my hand up to the bed for my plastic bag and pull it down to me - and the house explodes.

I remember shouting and swearing and somersaulting through the air and landing on a load of rubbish - I may have been unconscious for a while. The next thing I know is that thousands of pieces of glass are hitting in my back - I lie down and grope with my hand for some cover - I feel so lucky because I find a board just big enough to cover me - I hold onto it with my life to stop the wind blowing it away. I am lying on my side on glass and wood - I dare not move my left leg because I think it’s slit open or broken - I can’t see much - I think I’m facing away from the house but I’m afraid to move and look round. Rocks hit my board, and sometimes I nearly lose it (the board) - I think through what I’ll do if the board does fly, and I decide to make a run for it. It is cold too - I find a plastic mac by me and wrap myself in it but the wind keeps blowing it off - I am shivering - I can’t decide if I’m going to live - when I think I see lights I shout several times but my voice can’t rise up above the roar of the storm - I am sure all the others [from the house] are dead - I can’t see how they can be alive - I am feeling so lucky that I’m not in pain and that I found the board to protect me.

I lie in two inches of water thinking, working out plans, looking, but never moving other than my hand, which keeps searching around for more protection. Occasionally a light glimmers from across the way - I can’t work out which direction it is, nor can I work out what a bridge-like structure is (it has cars underneath). Later, as visibility improves, I see lights and a house nearby - I am shouting more often now as the dense mistiness lifts.

More than two hours later, and dawn is approaching and the wind is abating to nothing more than a strong gale. I look around a little more and discover that my board has only remained where it is because it’s wedged down by the bed that I’d been hiding behind. Then I hear voices behind me - there are people alive - I pull myself together to turn over - it is the first time I’ve moved properly in two and a half hours, There is a light and I can see Peter and the van. There is no cut in my leg, or anything seriously wrong with it, but I still have to hobble when I walk. I go to the van where I find Gerry. Willem joins us shortly. Paul and Susie are safe in a cupboard. Only Wayne and Gus are missing - Peter and Joel are searching for them frantically but there is no sign. We are really worried that they are under the pile of debris where Peter’s house once stood.

Long after it is light and the wind has fallen still more, we hear that they are next door. I am crying with joy. Incredible. We all have little wounds but nobody is seriously hurt - Gus, Wayne, Paul, Joel and Peter start a frantic search of neighbouring houses, and then they take a couple of cars and start taking people down to the hospital. I really want to be part of this operation - I even try to join them at one point but my knee is really crook. The whole town is completely devastated - steel telegraph poles are bent to the ground - palm trees completely uprooted - roofs lying around everywhere except on the tops of houses. All that is left of Peter’s house is the bathroom on stilts and one of the long walls at a 45 degree angle, not a thing else upstairs. The dining room and kitchen below are wrecked. Everything, absolutely everything, is 100% wet - there are glass, wood, mosquito netting, nails, doors, clothes, books, everywhere. I take a ride down to the hospital - it is fenced in (the wire around the entrance had been put up before to stop hoards of people). I talk to someone at the hospital within 15 minutes but they aren’t interested in my problems and I’m not surprised - many people are bleeding or crying or nursing wounded children - all around is tragedy, tragedy tragedy.

I hitch back to the others - there’s not a building left in tact - corrugated iron, power lines, cars, caravans, trees are strewn everywhere - some of the road is under 6-8 in of water - destruction is everywhere you look.

When I get back, Peter and Wayne are hanging about the house, while most of the others have gone to the first aid centre. I chuck a few things in the van - Paul and I drive to the centre with some food and wine - we find the others from the house huddled in warm blankets - I join them and we swap stories. Gus has some bad cuts by the ear, Joel cut his foot running around helping people afterwards. Peter and Gerry had sheltered in the van soon after the house exploded; Wayne had lain on the grass in the middle of the road, he’d lost his way following Gus who ran to the other house. Gus, Gerry and I are the worst injured. After a couple of hours, a doctor comes, but again he’s not interested in me - Gus and Gerry get some stitches. Willem is OK even though he had been trapped and needed rescuing by Joel and Peter - Go is OK but for some cut knuckles. It’s Christmas Day.

Paul ferries us all to Darwin High School in little groups with blankets as our only clothes. I have real trouble bending my leg, and it takes time to get in and out of the purloined Volkswagen. We are among the first to arrive at the school. Everywhere is under water, but there’s not too much damage. We annex a dryish room for ourselves, but we can’t get the water out because the corridor is under water too. Peter is alternating between fits of crying and fits of trying to organise everybody, and boss them around. Paul goes back to pick up all the obvious things lying about round the house pile, and then he returns the car, and gets Peter’s wagon going

I have a little cry at the thought of Julian and Melanie waking Mum and Dad, then sitting down excitedly for breakfast and turning on the radio and hearing about Darwin. We all manage to send a telegram off home for free, and, a day later, we get a free telephone call. I am emotionally distraught hearing all their voices after so long.

The Aussie prime minister Whitlam flies back from his European tour and spends an afternoon here; Jim Cairns stays a little longer. The head of a newly formed disaster squad is working 25 hours a day, and, apparently, nearly breaking down sometimes.

People begin to pour into the school, and it becomes a main centre where all goods (food, clothes, cigarettes) are brought before distribution. There is a small team of dedicated cooks - so we have good food. My knee doubles in size. I am so incapacitated that I really can’t walk, it is as much as I can do to go to the toilet. Willem, Gerry and Gus do nothing either.

Around us, the authorities (concerned largely about health and disease because the water supply broke down) have acted efficiently. People were already being evacuated on Boxing Day, and by the third day they had got 6,000 people out by plane. The radio station was working again quite quickly, which helped everyone know what was going on, and what to do.

Some of our group keep going back to the house looking for their stuff, and especially for Peter’s money which was supposed to be in an attache case. Poor Peter, having lost his house, never found his money, and one day he just left, in his combie van, for Sydney. By the end, I had really begun to dislike him - he was so egotistical. Everyone was bringing food and giving to the community but Peter would just stand in the middle of a room, hold a bag of sugar high up, and shout ‘who wants a bag of sugar?’.

Paul, Joel and Wayne work consistently - Susie and I do a little work in the kitchen - I prefer to wash dishes for two hours, and then get my meal immediately than to queue for half an hour. There are almost 800 people here, I think, and the queues are unbelievable. The evacuation programme continues and is going better than expected.

On 29th December the radio informs us that single men can now be evacuated.

Susie is going to Sydney. Willem is unsure how he is going to make it back to the island where he was working. Kiki is living and working at the Travel Lodge, and is happy to stay here.

Originally, I had planned to fly to Townsville and hitch down the coast (wanting to see something of Australia) but the evacuation planes are only flying to state capitals. I feel Brisbane is already too far south so I decide I might as well go with Gerry to Sydney. There is a lot of messing about before we are finally taken to the airport (in a beaut air-conditioned bus). However, the officials aren’t expecting another coach load, and there are queues and queues waiting to get on the one plane standing. We, and a lot of others already there, don’t make it - we sleep in the destroyed airport buildings. We spend the next day in the airport watching coach loads of women and children being evacuated; we are given food and drink all day long by the Salvation Army. There are newspapers lying around with long stories about Darwin. I talk for a while to one of the people from the school - he adores Joni Mitchell, but didn’t enjoy his overland trip.

Early evening the Starlifter we’d been promised arrives. It is going to take us all away from this devastated disaster area - we all fetch our bags and rush to the buses. I am horrified at the way the Americans are squeezing every last person in. We have to sit cross-legged in about 1 sq ft - from front to back nobody is going to be able to move. I still can’t bend my legs properly and so decide to get off - I’m not that desperate. I think the American was going for some sort of people record - he left all the baggage behind. Early this morning, on the first flight, they were trying hard to find people to go to Townsville - I should have gone, as I’d planned, but I was loathe to leave new friends after so long travelling. It was sad any way to leave Paul, Wayne and Gus - I had some good times with them.

The following morning I take the first plane - a Hercules to Brisbane. We sit on seats, and are allowed in the cockpit to have a smoke - it’s a beautiful serene sight, floating above the clouds. The journey takes five hours and we land in late afternoon - we are shuttled across a boring-looking town to an evacuation centre - an empty bus garage with clothes, social services, Sally Army, airline officials. We register, are given $62, and then booked onto a flight to Sydney. We eat, and I put on some new underpants.’

1 comment:

Pieter Bekkers said...

Thank you Paul K Lyons. I have always wondered what my state of mind was after Tracy. You have given me some perspective. Please do not change anything. There always were large gaps in my memory about these events. I have an album devoted to the house post Tracy. Somebody took some pictures. I will make sure that those you mention, if I know them, will be told of your blog. I am very thankful. Pieter Bekkers Bushlawyer (FB)