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Title: No place seemed safe
Name: Brimson, Julie
My Story: Kathy Pollard's Story. It was the morning of 24 December 1974 when we heard the first cyclone warning. From December 20, we had been aware of a low hovering in the Arafura Sea on which the Bureau of Meteorology had been keeping a close watch. But with so many lows along the tropical coast during a wet season, this one didn’t spark any particular interest until Christmas eve, when we heard the first warnings over the radio; the warnings may well have commenced earlier and given my focus on Christmas preparation, I just didn’t take notice. But, this was now a Cyclone Watch with the low having developed into a cyclone called Tracy; we began to take a little more interest, especially as there was a chance it could hit Darwin. As the morning progressed, the radio warnings increased in frequency along with information relating to how to prepare for a cyclone. Tie down loose objects, tape full glass windows, fill the bath with water, for drinking water may not be available after a blow, lock up pets and advice as to when to open and close louvers during the eye. I took it on board along with advice about purchasing and storing batteries, torches, medicines, personal papers and to keep plenty of tinned food on hand. Warnings were constant, but the warnings, but like warnings in the past, which frequently amounted to not much more than wind and rain, didn’t instil a need to be overly concerned. And also, the low had taken a haphazard course to date, with the Bureau guys struggling to identify just where it would hit land…in fact it had zigzagged its way around the Arafura, not helping those trying to track its course. So, even with a raised awareness and increased radio warnings of the threat to the city we still focused our thoughts on Christmas eve, attending the Christmas church service, preparing the presents and making sure every last detail was in place for the big day. But as we went about last minute preparations, we began to notice the increasingly overcast skies which were followed by an eerie quiet that descended on the city. Not a bird could be heard and not a breath of wind could be felt. This was different. But despite the constant television and radio warnings and the unusual quiet , the community at large held the view the cyclone would miss Darwin, sending only gusty wind and a deluge of rain like the last blow. “This had been the way the potential blows had been in the past, so why would it be any different this time?” was the thought in many minds. So people generally went about their business of preparing for Christmas; and as darkness fell, headed to parties just like any other year, no one seemed overly perturbed. As we dressed the boys for the Christmas eve celebration at Ron Freyling and Keran Eschbank’s place, we noticed the eerie quiet was slowly being replaced by gradually intensifying wind with the broadcaster announcing the city had moved from cyclone watch to cyclone alert. However there still didn’t seem to be a sense of urgency as residents continued to go about their lives without a sense of panic. By the time we arrived at Ron’s place, a number of people were already enjoying the night, with the mood light hearted and conversation about a potential ‘blow’ not the primary topic; having said that, Ron who had a civic responsibility, had his ear to the warnings. But within a couple of hours, the light hearted mood changed and with the weather intensifying, the cyclone alerts were increasing in frequency and radio and television warnings were appealing to residents to commence the process of battening down, actioning preparations and preparing for the worst. The fun party mood faded as the topic of conversation moved from Christmas day celebrations to the possibility of the cyclone hitting Darwin. However, at this point, we still didn’t believe Darwin would be hit. We were just beginning to think about the possibility of a reasonable blow that may affect the Darwin area; but there certainly wasn’t an understanding of any imminent danger, the ferocity of a cyclone or the devastation such a natural phenomenon could incur. It was about 11.00pm when Ron received a call from Emergency Services and shared the news that cyclone Tracy was now bearing directly on Darwin. He solemnly advised everyone to head home and put cyclone preparations in place. An immediate sense of urgency and panic prevailed as people gathered children and belongings, and in place of “merry Christmas” people wished each other ‘good luck’, as they headed home. We had some eight kms to drive which didn’t prove to be any fun. George’s grim face showed silent determination as he fought to hold the steering wheel desperately trying to keep the little vehicle from being pushed by the will of the now ferocious wind as it howled and thrust every which way. The rain hammered against the front window, the wipers slapping helplessly unable to cope with the deluge as visibility was reduced to negligible; the headlights doing little; lightening lit the sky, twigs and branches flew past at the mercy of this now forming monster, as we crawled slowly home. My heart was in my mouth and my mouth went dry as the reality of having to survive a cyclone suddenly hit home. By the Grace of God we made it home without accident or damage as we parked the car slightly on an angle near to the house; just as we had been told. I was immediately thankful I had remembered to fill the tank. Opening the car door proved a feat in itself, let alone struggling through the thrashing winds to make it to the front door; and there waiting at the door were two panic stricken greyhounds. The poor dogs, obviously scared witless had escaped from their kennels in a desperate attempt to make it to shelter inside. By the time we opened and closed the front door there was no feeling of relief, only of having survived a buffeting and bruising encounter; and the night hadn’t even started. And, our poor dogs almost took the door off the hinges as they ran past George, one heading to the laundry and the other taking refuge under hallway cupboard; and we didn’t see them again for the rest of the night. Putting the boys to bed in their room, we checked on our boarder who was fast asleep, turned on the radio and sat nervously in the lounge room listening to cyclone updates. Preparation had been earlier completed and what hadn’t been done would not get done now. George soon nodded off to sleep but I could no more sleep than fly to the moon; I was on red alert as I listened to every bang, crash, hit, thrust and boom wondering if we would live through whatever was about to descend from the skies. I had no idea as to what was hitting the house, the car, our neighbours’ houses or if our house would withstand the force, even my sense of survival no longer held fast; suddenly we were alone in the hands of a monster; a monster we didn’t know. The thought of Christmas day was now furthest from my mind – with survival foremost. It must have been just after mid-night when the noise and intensity of the wind picked up to a scream or a screech or a deafening roar, the radio went dead and I woke George. Vainly we tried to follow cyclone advice in opening louvres on one side of the house and closing on the other while the screeching, howling, battering of the wind and rain made it impossible to hear anyone speak. Although the intensity of the cyclone was horrendous, our house was to the best of our knowledge, remaining strong and intact. With the power off, the noise was magnified as the incessant deluge of rain thrashed and beat against every window. And we had no contact with the outside. Then suddenly, the noise stopped and an eerie silence fell as the eye passed overhead. I immediately closed windows previously open and opened windows previously closed. A hammering noise could be heard coming from the house next door and we imagined the neighbour was trying to restore loose sheets of roofing iron. I picked this time to remind George it would have been a good idea if our roof had been hammered down too, but of course it was far too late for that to happen. From the little I could discern through the window, there was nothing surrounding our house other than a water logged ground with trees bent or snapped in half their life cut short by the fury from above and debris of all descriptions caught in fences or littering the ground. What is going to happen us I thought, as I prayed to my God. Then slowly the noise returned, the wind gradually gaining momentum but this time coming at us from another direction, and as barely seconds appeared to have past, it once again began its relentless pounding, this time on the side wall. Then with the monster again restored to full intensity and almost a renewed vigour, our house became a pawn attacked on all sides with such a vengeance, we simply expected the roof or the walls to disappear. Just as I prayed to be saved, the roof over the bedrooms began lifting and thudding back down again as if in anger it attempted to hammer the walls into the ground. Sated from its rest, the cyclone was now unleashing the fury of a wild beast and not intent on stopping until it had destroyed all in its path; well that is what it felt like. By now we were not just scared, we were petrified. Picking the boys up from their beds, George then retrieved a sleepy Grant, already covered in shards of glass but still blissfully unaware of what was unfolding around him. Having been woken from a dead sleep, Grant quietly informed George “I don’t think it’s advisable to walk the dogs this morning” and attempted to roll over and return to sleep when George in a few words, encouraged a far different response. Standing helplessly in the lounge room and surrounded by such terrifying noise we couldn’t hear anyone speak we regrouped and decided on a course of action to head to the main bedroom. Tightly holding onto the person in front we tentatively made our way single file into our chosen place of sanctuary; with three adults and two children crawling under the double bed. With everyone safely on the floor under cover, each person wriggled and squirmed as they unsuccessfully tried to find a comfortable space to lie. But just as positioning became almost acceptable, I remembered bathrooms were meant to be the safest place to sit out a cyclone, so after doing my best to scream my intentions, all five of us wormed out from the crowded space, stood, not daring to stand straight less something hit us from above, and again tightly holding the person in front we shuffled our way in single file from the bedroom to the bathroom. At this point we thought our suburb of Ludmilla was the only suburb being savaged by the cyclone, with the remaining Darwin suburbs simply hit by rain and wind; and we decried our fate at having a house in Ludmilla. Having made it to bathroom and trying to find our own spaces to sit, I immediately began to feel too open and unsafe and after issuing instructions yet again, I took the lead, herding everyone back to the main bedroom. But, no sooner were we once again cowering under the double bed when I was again filled with dread and for the second time that night took the lead in shuffling the group back to the sanctuary of the bathroom. But I couldn’t shake the anxiousness and worry telling George we needed to find a different safe haven. But his time George took the lead and made it quite clear we were not going any-where; the bathroom was where we were staying and no-one was going to budge; and, we didn’t move again that night. As we bunkered down I tried to plug a gap where a louver had once been; but it proved a futile attempt; just as futile as my thinking in how I could clean up in the morning for Christmas lunch. Can you believe that! But my thoughts about cleaning were momentary only, probably borne from shock. Survival thoughts quickly returned. With the bathroom our safe haven, Glen lay on the floor, George held Shane as he sat on the floor leaning against the bathroom door, Grant perched on the toilet as I found a spot on the edge of the bath. At some stage, I asked Grant about a comment he had earlier made that this house would be structurally sound in a cyclone, to which he responded “hmmmm not in one like this”! I was Glad I asked, his response filled me with dread; more dread than I already felt. Then with a whoosh the manhole cover in the ceiling lifted into the roof, showering debris into the bath water; our drinking water. Little was said; what was there to say? Then, with nerves on edge, Grant stood and began to make his way towards the bathroom door citing his need to retrieve a cigarette from the kitchen. But he didn’t make it to the door, as I stood like a bolt of lightning telling him he wasn’t going anywhere near the stuffing door, “so sit down and shut up”. Then sometime during a brief lull in the horrific noise, or maybe it was as the cyclone had decided it had reaped sufficient havoc and began to move on its course; the wind slowly receded, and we heard the fellow from the house behind, who was by now quite drunk sounding as though he was picking up sheets of iron. It was about 7.00am when the wind sufficiently lessened, the thrashing rain reduced its intensity, and we felt confident enough to move from our safe haven. As Grant tentatively opened the bathroom door and took a look through the nearest window he turned around with shocked look on his face and said “you aren’t going to believe what I see”. Whilst in our minds we had thought we were in one of the few houses in the suburbs to be hit by this fury, we soon found out we were only one of thousands. In fact, rather than being treated harshly, we had been treated lightly. The roof was still in place with only one loose sheet flapping slightly in the now light breeze; the walls were still standing, and we didn’t at this time believe we had lost anything. The car was fine, full of petrol and still standing where we had parked it the night before; in fact the only visible damage to the house were broken louvers in two bedrooms and the bathroom; and water damage throughout. But at this time we still had no idea as to how lucky we were. After inspecting the car, house and contents, we looked wider afield and as far as the eye could see there was not a tree left standing; every plant, bush, shrub or free standing structure had been ripped from its moorings not to be seen again; and houses, what houses! And there was nothing but a sandy base where our above ground pool once stood and all that remained from my once proud garden was a lone, leafless stick standing silently to attention in the middle of the yard; now dejectedly sporting a dismembered hanging basket which wasn’t even mine. The silence was as eerie as the sight before us. Not a bird, not a noise, not a car or a voice, just silence and desolation. The nearby houses, with the exception of a neighbour, were in a much worse state than ours; in fact in some cases, only shells or remnants of houses remained.. We didn’t know what to say or what to do; or where the people living in those houses were now; we just couldn’t comprehend what lay before us. The greyhounds, Metal Marie and Daubet, who hadn’t moved from their places of safety all night, apprehensively stepped outside beside us, they too not sure of their next step. It took me some time to think straight, straight enough to retrieve the camera and take photos, if just to show my parents what our house and suburb looked like. We still didn’t realise the entirety of the devastation in that the city had been flattened and destroyed and people killed; and that this cyclone would be written in the Age paper as “a disaster of the first magnitude without parallel in Australia’s history” or that the winds which attacked the city were at the last reading, Category 4. We still thought our suburb had taken the biggest hit and we would seek refuge with friends living in other suburbs. Little did we know how lucky we were to even have a camera when most of the city’s population didn’t even have a house, but this was something we were only to later discover. The first person we set eyes on that morning was our neighbour from behind who was wandering aimlessly through his yard collecting sheets of iron, and by now very, very drunk. Welcome to Christmas morning 1974 in Darwin. I have no idea as to what time it was when we heard the sound of a truck being driven in a nearby street slowly crawling its way around the debris with someone speaking through a loud hailer. “This is to advise that Cyclone Tracy has moved away from Darwin and is now heading towards Katherine; but we do not know if it will turn around and again bear down on this city, so please take precautions”. Our spirits fell; we couldn’t think of what to do now let alone what to do if it returned. With no power, no news, no-one to speak to, Christmas day 1974 was not looking good; but we were alive and safe. We didn’t know, and obviously the person on the loud hailer didn’t either, that cyclones only gain their intensity and draw their destructive force over water and as the remnants of the cyclone was now over land, it would turn into a rain depression and eventually peter out. If only we had known that then. With little to do but worry as to whether the cyclone would return, and wanting to do something useful, we picked our way through the debris towards our neighbour’s house and were pleased to find them safe, although equally as shocked. Their house had survived well, in fact it was almost intact, and, unlike ours, dry inside, so we were very happy to accept an invite to stay until such time as we could arrange other accommodation. And at this point in time we were still unaware the rest of Darwin had been destroyed. Knowing we had a dry place to sleep that night, George and Grant turned their minds to other people, and after siphoning petrol from my car into Grant’s motor bike they headed off to check on Lew and Kerry. It was a good few hours before they returned with the news his brother and family were safe, but it had been difficult finding a drivable path through the rubble strewn roads and trying to recognise streets as signs and familiar landmarks were no longer standing. With some semblance of logic beginning to form in our minds we turned our attention to surviving in the short term. With electricity out for many weeks and with the fridge full of food, we decided to keep a few day’s supply of perishables including meat for ourselves and the dogs and bury the excess. We hadn’t given a thought and nor did we in the days ahead, to the pork in Rita and John’s freezer or that they were out of town. And, as we started digging holes to bury the food, the flies already making their presence felt, sweat running down own backs as the humidity soared, our dogs watched on despairingly, looking as dispirited as we felt. With Christmas day having turned into something completely unplanned, we remained thankful to be safe and alive, with food, water, clothes and a dry place to sleep. The early morning warning that the cyclone may return had not amounted to anything, and to some degree we had turned our thinking to more positive thoughts about surviving in the short term, as opposed to worrying what might happen. Having not slept at all Christmas eve and with Christmas night approaching, we tried to relax sufficiently to get some much needed sleep. As yet we still didn’t understand the extent of the damage on the city nor were we aware that the rest of Australia and indeed some overseas countries were already watching and listening to the news of Darwin’s destruction. In fact people around the world probably knew far more about the full extent of the damage and death than those of us surviving in what was left of the city of Darwin. We were simply worried our families in Sydney would be trying to ring to wish us Merry Christmas and wondering why we weren’t answering the phone. Little did we know they were already out of their minds with worry as to whether we were alive or dead. Christmas night we safely bedded down under cover and despite a thousand thoughts racing each other through our minds, a general feel of weariness took over as we fell into deep sleep. At some time during the night, I was woken by the rumbling of distant thunder which to my scrambled brain, felt like it was heading our way. My heart stopped for a moment as my first thought turned to the cyclone returning; but of course it wasn’t, it was an ordinary storm sending only lightening and rain. Realising the need for clean water, we dashed outside with every reasonable size vessel in an effort to catch water for drinking and washing. Although most of our clothes were soggy and dirty we were fortunate to have a working transistor radio and good batteries and by Boxing day we could, for the first time, tune into broadcasts. It was then we learned of the total devastation of Darwin, the mounting death and injury toll and the arrangements for evacuation of women, children, the sick and elderly. Without electricity, sewerage and water, Darwin could not cater for the number of residents and unless there was a good reason to remain to help in some way, then evacuation was a priority. High schools were used as marshaling points with radio announcements regularly made requesting potential evacuees to move to the closest high school. With two young children and only temporary accommodation, I chose to leave Darwin and head to Sydney, with George remaining to help with the clean-up. Most healthy families made the same decision. In fact if I remember correctly, fit healthy men were not accepted as evacuees. At this point it was unclear as to the number of deaths, missing people, or injuries; but despite this I can remember only thinking of how badly I wanted to get out of Darwin. Although I didn’t know it, we had been very fortunate in the big scheme of things; very fortunate indeed, although I couldn’t at this point see the big picture. December 27 George drove Glen, Shane and I to Casuarina High school, a marshalling point in the northern suburbs and already teeming with people, primarily women, children and the elderly, all as dazed and bewildered as me, clinging desperately to their children or whatever belongings they had saved; and all with their own horrific stories to tell. There was a system in place and it worked well as I followed those in front in joining one of the long lines of people working their way towards a number of officials taking names and details of those to be evacuated. It was hot, humid and stultifying and as I slowly made my way towards the poor officials who were doing a wonderful job, I was more bewildered than sad as I nursed Shane and kept Glen close. But with each step I kept reminding myself how fortunate we were to be alive and on our way to safety; albeit without George and with no idea as to when we would next meet or if we would ever return to our beloved Darwin; but we were alive! After providing our names, the address of where we lived, where we were travelling to, who was remaining in Darwin from our family and where they were now living, we tiredly piled into the next available bus. George had stayed long enough to make sure we were safely on board and after sharing sad goodbyes our bus slowly pulled out, and with its sad and dishevelled cargo tucked away, headed for Darwin airport. I remember little about the ride there, other than the bus driving directly onto the tarmac where we were met by Salvation Army Officers. These wonderful people who have always been on the front line to offer help, were there yet again, as despite having suffered themselves, they stood as one in the unrelenting heat showing care and a ready smile as they distributed kind words, compassion, Bush biscuits and cold water. And, then as if in a dream, we dejectedly climbed the front steps of a waiting Qantas plane bound for Sydney; every person in their own private hell; each face telling its own story as memories, so recent and raw were silently relived; for, life for everyone on that plane would never be the same again. The Qantas staff were wonderful, personally welcoming everyone on board with kind words, and without seating allocation, the plane filled from the front to the back, with a request made as to any pregnant women or ill passengers who required assistance. Adults had been permitted one bag, and mine contained only little boy’s clothes, but as the plane gained height and slowly left the destruction of our beloved Darwin behind, that was the least of my concerns. Watching through the plane window, it was hard to believe this beautiful tropical city had been reduced to rubble within a few hours. I didn’t want to look any more as I instead turned my eyes to my two little boys and felt an immediate thanks to God. Mr Sneddon, acting Prime Minister at the time, was on board the plane and spent the entire flight walking, meeting and individually speaking to passengers while offering words of comfort. Although sad to leave George behind, I felt enormous relief to be leaving Darwin. The plane touched down late that night and as we exited the passenger terminal I ran into an old friend, George.. Despite what I had just been through and the recent turmoil in my life, we stood talking for some minutes bringing each other up to date with our lives. Suddenly I thought “this is ridiculous, I have just been through a life threatening situation in Darwin, I am dog tired with two little children and here I am standing around making small talk with an old friend in Sydney airport as if the last four days of hell in Darwin had never happened”. And to all those walking past and around me in Sydney airport, it hadn’t! I am sure I was still in shock. So, quickly bringing the conversation to a halt I headed to retrieve the one suitcase before ringing my parents. When Mum heard my voice I could feel the relief in her voice flow through the phone; I can’t remember who spoke to me next, but someone said “stay right there, don’t go anywhere, we are on our way to get you”. My old home was a welcoming thought as Glen, Shane and I went to wait for Mum and Dad. It was so good to be home and within a couple of days, with good sleeps under my belt, lots of talking, crying, thinking and sharing we settled comfortably into Sutherland. Glen started school at St Patricks, my old school and a good friend I had met in Darwin, Rita who worked at St Vincent de Paul, made sure I had everything I needed.
Use and Restrictions: Cyclone Tracy Story Project Agreement
Subject: Cyclone Tracy, 1974
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Appears in Collections:Cyclone Tracy
Territory Times Gone By

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