Cyclone Tracy – Graeme Gilder

I had this 20 acre block in Darwin, or actually 21 miles out I of the city centre, and on holidays and other opportunities I would go up there from Kununurra and do some work on it with the idea of one day moving to Darwin and building there, if not it would still be a good investment.

It was Dec 19th 1974 on my Xmas break that we had decided to start fencing the block, I had sent a lot of material for building and fencing up previously with a friend of mine who had a road train, a lot of this material I had got through government tenders and auctions etc.

We started the fence on Dec 20th It was raining that day on and off with very fine rain, we were told there was a cyclone off the coast, my wife Emily helped me initially but I then carried on by myself as although the rain was starting to get consistent now I wanted to get as much done as I could while I had the chance, I had bought my caravan out to the block with the idea of camping there while we worked, we only had the two children then Allan & Teresa, Jeffrey’s birth was still a little under three months away then.

We then decided that while this cyclone was in the area and not wanting to get caught in a caravan out of town if it hit we would stay with Emily’s sister Melva Kunoth at her house in Aldridge Place Rapid Ck, I travelled back and forth for the few days leading up to Xmas.

On Xmas eve Melva had some friends over for a few drinks and as the rain was rather strong and the wind was coming up I was asked to run them home at about 9.30pm, luckily they didn’t live too far away, well the rain started coming down in buckets then and the wind was so strong I nearly didn’t make it back.

By about 10.30pm we knew that we were in for trouble, we felt the cyclone was just about on top of us and filled the bath so we would have a ready supply of water if the mains were cut, we then all huddled in a back bedroom as the cyclone approached, things were not too bad until the windows blew in, then wardrobes and other items of furniture started blowing across the room, we were all huddled between the beds.

Things eventually got so bad in there that we had to get out and find a safer place, it took me all my strength to get the bedroom door open, finally I did and we dragged the kids and crawled through the water and pieces of glass etc. to the kitchen, there we all sandwiched . ourselves between several mattresses, we and Melva were all laying on top of each other trying to protect the kids including Melva’s two, Steven and Barbara.  I was on top and trying to look around with a torch, the ceiling and roof would lift on one comer every so often and I was trying to think what would be the best thing to do if the roof went, as we wouldn’t all be able to keep together outside and I didn’t fancy our chances with the projectiles I heard swishing around out there, I had pretty well decided it best to stay anyway.

It was a sound I personally will never forget, it was like express trains hurtling past with the constant swishing of roofing iron going in all directions and crashes as things hit the house.  It was in the middle of all this I thought I heard a knock on the door, I dismissed this as nonsense but I heard it again and was sure, I crawled off the heap and to the back door and when I finally got the door open I found a lady from across the road huddled there who asked if she could come in as her roof had just blown away, just like that, no panic or emotion, just, can I come in? I was told afterwards that it was the Caroline family from across the road Ester & Dennis and their young baby but for the life of me I only remember the one woman and what happened next is not completely clear in my mind either, I seem to have blanked a lot of it out but I know we emptied the bath and put her in there as there was no room in the kitchen and the bathroom being the next safest place.  I don’t remember a lot about the rest of that night, just noise and wind and things flying around, I do remember thinking though ‘I wonder how we are going to come out of this all of us’ I remember silently saying a prayer for us all and I guess it was answered as unlike many people who died on that night we all survived.

During the eye of the cyclone everything went quiet and we were able to take stock of our situation and make ourselves a bit more secure and comfortable, then it came back, from the other direction this time, this second hit seemed to me to be far worse than the first with more noise and much more swishing of projectiles.  When it had at last passed and daylight arrived we checked the kids and ourselves and apart from me having some minor cuts from the flying glass we were all okay.  I made my way to the front door and got it open, looked outside and quickly closed it again, I lit a cigarette and just stood quietly inside the door, I couldn’t speak for a moment owing to the size of the lump that welled up in my throat, where yesterday I had looked out of that front door and just seen the house opposite now I could see right down the road across the creek and clear through almost to Casuarina a mile or so away.

All that was left of the high level houses next to us and across the road were the stumps they had sat on, they were all gone, as were many others, only a few of the low level houses remained intact though many were missing at least part of their roof. We cleaned up as best we could and made things safe, this was Xmas day, and I don’t think I was the only one that wondered that previous night if we would be around to see it come up, but we were, and fared pretty well, the only actual injury was when my daughter Teresa tried out her new skipping rope on the wet floor and slipped and lost a tooth.

Our Nissan Patrol came out of it fairly well too, one side wasn’t even scratched apart from a broken wing mirror but the other side was sand blasted back to bare metal and although it hadn’t moved more than a metre backwards or forwards it was sitting up on part of the roof from next door that had somehow blown underneath it, just one more mystery of the wind.  We cleared the driveway and got the car out and went looking for friends and relatives among the ruins of what up to last night had been a city looking forward to Xmas Day.  We had a lot of problems moving around as many streets were so full of debris that even a tank couldn’t penetrate them, even on the roads we could manage with our four wheel drive we had to crisscross and drive across peoples blocks and gardens to avoid sometimes whole houses on the road.

We finally made it to Bagot Rd, and had to crisscross the road back and forth stopping every so often to lift up power lines (which were now dead of course) to travel it.  I had just crossed the median strip, and climbed over a mess of someone’s roof when a police officer came running across the road ordering me to stop, my first thoughts were ‘surely he is not going to book me for driving on the wrong side of the road today,’ but no, he climbed on to my bull bar and up on to my roof yelling “go, go,” I did just that when I realised that he had a pair of bolt cutters and was using us as a ladder to reach the low power lines, we travelled the whole of Bagot Rd. like that stopping when he yelled so he could cut a wire then moving on to the next one after it had fallen, all the while watching out for the loaders and dozers clearing debris here and there, when we got to the end of the road he jumped off yelling ‘thanks’ and jumped onto another vehicle going the other way.

The police must have been short of vehicles, theirs probably damaged by Tracy as they appeared to have raided several car dealerships and commandeered vehicles, writing ‘POLICE’ down each side of them with spray packs, they looked very odd.

We checked what addresses we could, Emily’s brother David and his wife Penni were staying with Penni’s parents and had just got out luckily as their house disappeared around them and were safe, Penni being heavily pregnant with her son David too.  On our way back to Melva’s house we passed a destroyed house that had a Xmas tree complete with wrapped up presents sitting in the wreckage, near it was a partly open package containing a teddy bear, I then started to wonder where the child was that the present was for and more importantly how that child was, that lump came back into my throat then and I could feel a wave of emotion welling up inside me, my eyes were starting to get wet and I really had to fight it to stay in control, I knew I couldn’t afford to lose it now, I had my own family to think about, that emotional feeling only lasted a few seconds luckily and I was back in control again.

I got up onto Melva’s roof and did what repairs I was able to, I could see for miles from up there, while on the roof I heard a police siren and saw the flashing light from a long way off, he was going much too fast for the conditions and hit a low power line with the canopy of his short wheelbase Toyota, all the other lines tightened up on the other poles when he hit it, the canopy flew off and tangled with the power line, the police vehicle didn’t slacken speed but kept going leaving the canopy dangling up on the power line, it was still dangling next day.

The following day we headed out to our block on Freds Pass Road, I thought the caravan would be gone but we might be able to salvage the gas stove and/or gas fridge as at least Melva would have something to cook with and keep food cool, we finally reached the block after having to tow a few trees off the road so we could pass, the caravan had been parked between two trees, on reaching the spot we found both trees had blown over and away from the caravan on both sides leaving the caravan undamaged with not even a window broken, one side of it was papered with leaves though, for all the world like wall paper, the guy who had the next block to us didn’t come out of it too badly either, part of his house was damaged though not too badly but he lost his chicken house with 150 chickens never to be seen again, the building or the chickens.

After a few days Emily and I and the kids headed back to Kununurra with Melva and her family, it was recommended that those that could should leave because of the threat of disease and lawlessness, though I think any lawlessness was taken care of by the commonwealth police and martial law.  The traffic out of Darwin was bumper to bumper for over 100 kilometres with several road blocks checking names and also checking vehicle contents, so many of these vehicles after being battered by the cyclone looked like they had just been through a demolition derby.  We finally reached the town of Pine Ck. We called in to Pine Ck where everyone was given a hot meal of sausages bacon and potato by the Salvos who always seem to be there in such times of need.  We made it back to Kununurra late on the following day.

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