This short story is my June instalment for the 12 Short Stories Challenge website. I dedicate it to the residents of the Lower Blue Mountains community in New South Wales, Australia, who were affected by the devastating bushfires of October 2013.
Five years ago on Wednesday 17th October 2013 the inhabitants of the Lower Blue Mountains in New South Wales where I grew up woke up to what they thought would be a normal day. By nightfall, 200 residential properties were destroyed by fire, and chaos prevailed in this otherwise family friendly and quiet part of the Blue Mountains district. Within 24 hours, 500 insurance claims had been lodged.
Familiar locations of my childhood, Winmalee and Springwood, were brandished on the front pages of Sydney’s newspapers in the ensuing weeks. Many inhabitants of New South Wales or even Australia had not heard of these names until tragedy struck at such short notice that October.
Sergio Rosato (‘Serge’), Principal of St Thomas’s, my former primary school in the suburb of Winmalee, recalls children and parents streaming into the playground that morning, laughing, greeting each other. Teachers were busily preparing for the day ahead, as usual.
It was a dry, warm and windy day. Smoke hung in the air from a fire burning at Lithgow a 100 kilometres away, over the other side of the Blue Mountains. Due to the high wind and smoke, the children were told to stay indoors for their lunch break.
During lunch, a colleague from St Columba’s, the adjacent high school, rang to inquire if Serge had been outside in the last few minutes. In a calm voice, he advised Serge that from his school bell tower he could see the flames moving at a rapid rate towards St Thomas’s.
Serge walked outside while still talking on the phone and was confronted by a total change of scenery from what he had witnessed a few minutes earlier.
His colleague said: ‘mate, you’ve got a really big problem’.
Serge then consulted with the Assistant Principal and instructed the staff to bring the 550 children to the school hall. He noticed that some of the students were visibly anxious by then, but most of them remained calm, fixing their concentration on the teachers’ composure.
He then called emergency services requesting advice and assistance for a safe evacuation of the school. By this time, flames could be seen across the road from the school hall and the smoke was thickening.
Serge said: ‘ then a lone police car emerged from the haze like an apparition’. The police officer advised that they should head north towards the local shopping centre, 2 ½ kilometres away. Serge believed it was a miracle that the students had trod the same route just two weeks prior, for their school walkathon. Their familiarity would expedite the evacuation.
This time however, the teachers and children walked in silence, accompanied by scenes of chaos: helicopters flying overhead, emergency service sirens, plumes of dense smoke, and abandoned vehicles flanked on either side of the road. While walking them to safety, Serge prepared himself for the possibility of loss of life.
Serge lost his house in the fires that day. He didn’t admit to this fact until the last of the children were safely delivered to their parents nearly seven hours later.
Serge’s actions attracted national attention. His quick thinking and bravery were reported in capital city newspapers. He also became the recipient of the 2014 Blue Mountains Citizen of the Year Award.
Sydney based international children’s entertainers The Wiggles performed a special benefit concert a month after the fire in the school hall to lift the school’s spirits – the same hall the children started their evacuation trek from. ‘Blue Wiggle’ Anthony was told by his sister, Maria – who lives in the locality – that she loves to hear Serge play the guitar at mass.
The Wiggles also presented him with a new Maton acoustic guitar at the concert. His was burnt in the fire along with his house.
Serge was inundated with requests to be interviewed from the wider community and the media after his unexpected fame. He accepted my offer based on the fact that he knew my father, a local GP, when he was alive, and admired and respected him for his involvement in the Lower Blue Mountains community.
There have been tragic stories of loss: people anxiously trying to get back down their street to rescue their beloved family pet. Only to be cut off by the police due to the risks. Their own neighbourhoods had become forbidden places.
One couple had only moved into their home in Winmalee on the day of the fires. Then it burned to the ground that same afternoon. The house next door to them was untouched.
The following April, Serge was invited to meet the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge when they paid an official visit to the area, along with a few other locals who had shown great courage and selflessness during this traumatic time.
I asked Serge if his experience on that fateful day in October changed him:
‘The event has had a profound effect on my life. It has inspired me to be more attentive to others, to be a better listener and to appreciate the goodness and compassion that is embodied in people. I have witnessed this first hand and it has left an indelible mark on me.’
Carolyn Beazley runs the Youth Hostel Association (YHA) at Hawkesbury Heights near Winmalee. She and her husband live close by. She visited her friend Jo (not her real name) in the local suburb of Yellow Rock on the morning of the 17th October accompanied by her three-year-old granddaughter.
When she returned home she heard on the radio that there was a fire in Springwood, behind the golf course. Jo heard the same news bulletin and rang to ask if Carolyn knew where the smoke was coming from, that she could see from her place. Carolyn reassured her that it was in Springwood, not anywhere near her, but advised her to pack up her dog and the neighbour’s dog and come out to her place.
Jo decided to stay put.
For the next half hour Carolyn’s phone didn’t stop ringing. Her daughter in Queensland heard that parts of Springwood were being evacuated, including her husband’s extended family. By this time the schools had been evacuated and Hawkesbury Road was closed to traffic coming from Springwood. Carolyn, being on the other side of the road closure, volunteered to pick up her daughter-in-law’s two children who went to Winmalee High School and St Thomas’s Primary School. She stopped (still with the three-year-old granddaughter in tow) at the shopping centre where little Benjamin (6) had been evacuated to, as a member of Serge’s party. She could see that he was visibly distraught. But before she got inside the building Jo rang again, this time to say she was surrounded by fire.
‘Through tears I tried to keep her calm and think sensibly. I said ‘You have to stay now. Stop, fill up your bath and any buckets, wet towels and take curtains down, block draughts under doors and windows.’
By then there was no water in the taps. Just a dribble.
‘Don’t panic, just leave the taps turned on, it (the water) will come.’
‘Jo’s phone was going flat, as was mine. Power had been cut by this stage so we couldn’t recharge our phones. Jo saved her phone’s battery in case she needed to call anyone. She was unable to speak with her husband as he was working away from home that day and not in mobile phone range. She told me she felt very scared and vulnerable.
I sat on the side of Hawkesbury Road and cried. I wasn’t sure if this was the last time I would ever hear from my friend’.
Then Carolyn managed to pull herself together and reminded herself: ‘You have children to support now’. She went inside the shopping centre to collect Benjamin.
They then picked up his 12-year-old sister from Winmalee High School. Carolyn said she showed ‘great maturity’ comforting her little brother, ringing her parents herself to say that they were safe.
When Carolyn got home with the three children Jo rang again and their conversation was a lot more controlled.
‘She thought her neighbours’ house was on fire. The shed in her backyard was alight and she could see flames coming towards her house, then out of the blue a helicopter came and dumped water on the shed and garden, and the fire was quelled. We cried. Jo’s neighbour, who is a policeman, arrived. I think we both felt a little safer then, knowing that he was there. Don’t know why, it just meant he was stuck in there too now”.
The phone kept ringing all afternoon and they didn’t get round to eating until 8pm.
‘Cold baked beans and bread never tasted so good’. There was still no power by then.
Carolyn’s daughter-in-law couldn’t get through to pick up her three-year-old until the next morning. And her father-in-law phoned the following day to see if she was still coming round to clean his house as usual, being Thursday, as if nothing had ever happened. She witnessed surreal scenes along Hawkesbury Road on the drive there – houses burnt down, the air thick with smoke and ash and silence.
‘I take my hat off to Jo for surviving that twenty four-plus hours, basically on her own. We still didn’t see each other for nearly a week, as the road remained blocked for several days, and then was only open to residents. We had one huge hug and again, many tears, but they were happy ones.
There was probably not a person in the mountains who didn’t know someone who lost their home or were affected by the fire in some way or another. It was more emotionally draining this time for me compared to the ‘94 fires, which also threatened our property here at Hawkesbury Heights. Not sure why that is, maybe because I am older’.
As there were no bookings in the YHA that week, Carolyn offered free accommodation to anyone who needed it. Two young women ended up staying for a few days until their aunt was able to collect them.
Five years on and the vivid memory of that October is still not far from the minds of the residents of the Lower Blue Mountains. They are bracing themselves for another bushfire season, now just four months away.
Serge has a new house and he has insured his new guitar (along with the house). Carolyn and Jo still catch up regularly and remain firm friends.