We’ve all been asking each other the same question this week: where were you when the 2003 Canberra firestorm hit?
It’s not like we want to remember, more that we can’t forget.
It would be impossible to forget that sky. How it changed from blueish to orange to the most evil black in what seemed like minutes. How the wind came up from nowhere. How people’s faces changed from basic curiosity to outright fear – to panic.
A group of us were at a friend’s birthday party in what was then the new part of town – one of the outlying Gungahlin suburbs.
It was like a kids’ party, with lots of bad (read good) food like fairy bread, pink cakes with icing made to a rich dentist’s favourite recipe. I think there was even GI lime cordial.
One of my most graphic memories was how the fairy bread, the intricately shaped pieces of white bread carpeted with hundreds and thousands of sprinkles, started to curl up at the edges within, it seemed, just a matter of minutes. It was on a table with all the other party fare, but looked more like it was under attack. Like the rest of us started to feel.
Something wasn’t right. I remember all the windows being open and someone getting up to close them when this thick, hot, stinky air came flooding through. I also remember all looking at each other, not knowing what was wrong but knowing something really was
Many of us at the party were journalists, working on a Canberra newspaper, and rostered on for work at Fyshwick that afternoon at around 3 pm.
I said my goodbyes and started the drive across town. The eerieness of that afternoon has never left me. I constantly had to readjust my head/brain to stay on the road, to look ahead, not up, to roll down the windows or roll them back up again because I could never quite work out the science/common sense behind the air circulation thingy.
At the office, one of my colleagues was at the staff entrance having his last cigarette before starting his shift. We both watched, maybe more than we normally would, how his boot squashed the life out of the smoke. Normally he would just leave the butt on the ground. This day he spat on it.
The rest of the shift was a blur. A smoky, smelly, scary blur. Colleagues would come in and out of the office, each time bringing with them the scent of fire. But it was more than a scent. It was a bloody great stink. They reeked of it. Their clothes reeked of it. Those of us who had to stay inside and work on their copy, without going anywhere near a fireground, reeked of it.
I also remember their faces as they came back into the office. Their blank, dirty faces. They, like the rest of us, had never seen or heard anything like it.
Four people dead, 488 homes gone. God knows how many animals destroyed, burnt to death. How could that be? In such a smart capital like Canberra where these things aren’t supposed to happen.
We only get on the national news when they refer to Federal Parliament as “Canberra”. And although we didn’t like it that way, we lived with it.
Yet the pictures taken that day told a story as did the thousands of words that accompanied them in Sunday’s newspapers.
My best/worst memory is of one of my colleagues coming into the office apologising for being so late for his shift. He was filthy, but had thought it best to come straight to work – after spending three hours on the roof of his neighbour’s house fighting off flames. He went to his neighbour’s aid after coming home to find his Chapman house burnt to the ground. The neighbour’s house was saved, pretty much thanks to him. (He didn’t tell us, we only found out later).
Despite calls by his colleagues for him to go and rest, at least go and clean up, no-one, from memory, thankfully, suggested he go “home”.
He like everyone else in the office, stayed till stumps, putting out a newspaper headlined, Our Darkest Day.