David Curtis’s story

By Christmas 2024, it will be the 50th Anniversary of Cyclone Tracy, the fiercest and most destructive cyclone that destroyed Darwin. Here is our story of escape and survival of Cyclone Tracy. At the time, my wife Penelope and I were staying with my wife’s parents, Colin and Clara Royes, on the corner of Ross Smith Avenue and Railway Street in Parap. Opposite was the Baptist Hostel. Today, there is a set of traffic lights where Ross Smith Avenue meets the Stuart Highway going into the Darwin CBD and a service station near the traffic lights. The Royes’ house was at the back of that highway establishment.

My wife Penelope was expecting our second child any day. We already had our 14-month-old son, David. My wife and I were in the last room of the typical upstairs three-bedroom government fibro house on stilts. With our son, we were laying in bed listening to the radio that gave regular updates on the position and directional movement of the cyclone. The radio reports said the cyclone was moving west away from Darwin. Then there was a sudden change. The radio reports said the cyclone was doing a turnaround and was now coming back directly towards Darwin. While we listened, the radio station went dead. We later found out the radio station was demolished.

Just after the radio station went dead, the first winds hit. Then the house slowly, at first, began to rock backward and forward. Then the strength and roar of the wind grew stronger and more intense by the second. We wrapped our son in a weatherproof sleeping bag and all moved into the bathroom, the smallest and safest part of the house. The constant roar of the wind grew stronger and more powerful until the house swayed and rocked like crazy. We saw the roof lift off from above us as if in slow motion. Straight off, we were hit by stinging, driving rain and all soaked in an instant. We peeled the sleeping bag open to check our young son. He squealed when the rain hit his face, but he was okay.

While sitting in the bathtub, my wife said our yet unborn child just kicked the whole time. The constant roar of the wind and smashing and crashing of wind-driven objects was unbelievable and deafening. I decided it was time to get out of where we were. I left the shelter of the bathroom and tried to make my way to where once was the kitchen and lounge room, which was now just bare floorboards. It took all my strength to fight against the wind and rain coming in sideways, driven by the gale-force wind. I was getting smacked in the face by flying branches, leaves, and grass. I never once thought of being sliced in two by a sheet of roofing iron or getting skewered by flying timber.

The stairway I tried to get to across the kitchen and lounge, now all bare floorboard, was blocked by debris. Besides which, the wind was too strong for all of us to try to escape across even that short distance with the chance of getting blown away or killed by wind-driven objects was a great risk to us all. I went back to the bathroom. On the west side of the house was a hallway with windows facing the outside with metal louvres and doors to the three bedrooms on the inside of that hallway. I was looking for another way for us to escape. So, I kicked the louvres out in one of the window frames then jumped to the ground again fighting the wind and rain. I had my Landrover four-wheel drive ute parked under the house. I started the vehicle and backed it out until the cabin of the vehicle was right under the window I kicked out.

I got onto the roof of the vehicle and went back into the house through the window again. I got my fully pregnant wife, her mum and dad, and our 14-month-old son out through the window and onto the vehicle roof. Then we all crammed into the cabin of the Landrover ute. I backed the vehicle out and found our way through the gate was blocked by piles of roofing iron and timber. Not letting that stop us, I engaged low-range four-wheel drive gear and drove over it all. We made it to the Baptist Hostel on the opposite side of the street. The Baptist Hostel was a much stronger brick building. We were let in. The hostel was already jam-packed with people. Even the big kitchen cool room was filled with people. I noticed quite a few people with terrified looks on their faces were crying, including grown men.

There was no room downstairs, so we had to go upstairs. We got out of the house where we were during the first half of the cyclone. The eerie calm of the eye of the cyclone passed over after we were in the hostel. The second half of the cyclone hit again with much more force. We stopped people from coming into the room we shared with others at the hostel because every time the door was opened, the pressure change caused the brick wall to suck in and out, which could have caused it to collapse outwards. By daybreak, the cyclone was all but over. Being in an upstairs room, I could see clear down Ross Smith Avenue, clear past Kurringal flats, right down to the ocean at Fanny Bay. There was hardly a tree standing or completely stripped of leaves and branches. Just about all houses in view were demolished. We were very lucky, to say the least.

We went back to what was left of my wife’s parents’ house in the morning and found a sheet of roofing iron had speared through the wall of the bathroom we sheltered in, just at shoulder level of the chairs my wife and her mother were seated in, lodging in the opposite wall. Later on, my wife and son moved out to Milner to my sister’s house, which by some miracle, was hardly damaged. There were power poles twisted at the base like liquorice by the sheer force of the wind twisting and twirling sheets of roofing iron caught in the power lines. My sister at the Milner house left with our sister and her husband for Kununurra, where they lived, but not before checking we were okay and telling us we could move to the house. My sister and her husband with their family were over on a holiday from Kununurra, one they would never forget.

The next day, as I recall, everybody was required to get injections back at Parap against typhoid and cholera. We stayed another two nights at my sister’s house and ended up with high temperatures during the night, an aftereffect of the injections. On the fourth day, I drove my wife and son to the Jingili school, one of the evacuation points. They caught a Qantas Jumbo to Sydney, then Brisbane, to her sister’s place. A very tiring journey. The next day, I drove over to Kununurra with my nephew. I was a postal worker, so I worked in the Kununurra PO for a week, after which I drove to Katherine, where I left my Landrover at the Katherine PO to catch a plane to Brisbane via Sydney to see our new daughter, our baby we were expecting during Cyclone Tracy.

At the maternity ward of the Royal Women’s and Children’s Hospital, as it turned out, the same ward and hospital her mother was born in, our baby daughter was fitted with mittens because she kept scratching her face and for much of the time wouldn’t stop crying. As soon as she was placed in my arms, she stopped crying. After a month in Brisbane with my wife, son, baby daughter, and my wife’s family, I returned to Katherine to collect my vehicle to return to Darwin. Being a postal worker was considered an essential service to allow a return to Darwin.

On 7 January 2024, our Cyclone Tracy baby celebrated her 49th Birthday with her big brother, two sisters, her own two daughters, and her granddaughter and all the family.

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