Lorraine Dickson – Cyclone Tracy and Evacuation

At the time of Cyclone Tracy I was living as a young Army wife in Larrakeyah Barracks where my husband was posted. I was in the early months of my first pregnancy and working as a Community Nurse based at the Parap Centre. At the time of Tracy I was working as the nurse at Fanny Bay Gaol. I had experienced a threatened miscarriage only a few weeks prior to the cyclone but that had settled.

Christmas Eve 1974 started out as a usual day. I went to work at Parap and then to the Gaol. We were aware there was a cyclone threat and my manager suggested we should all get our work done as quickly as possible so we could go home as soon when we were finished. I remember that, while at the gaol, some of the Aboriginal inmates were nervous about the cyclone. Some were even suggesting we should pack up and leave Darwin for the duration. At the end of my working day, I went straight home.

Our house was an older home in Clowes Street, Larrakeyah Barracks. We knew it had been there for World War 2 as we had seen aerial photos of Darwin from that time and we were able to identify the house. The house was an elevated house as many Darwin houses were. The house was parallel to the street and front of the house was one wall with a central front door. We had 3 bedrooms with partition walls between them. One was a room overlooking the road and the other 2 were at the back of the house. We had a large living area which expanded across the rest of the front of the house – in the far corner we had a dining area which opened onto the kitchen and there was a bathroom between the kitchen and the 3rd bedroom. Down external stairs and under the house we had a besser block store room and laundry. In the front yard there was a large mango tree in the front corner on the kitchen side of the house and 2 coconut palms on either side of the driveway which led to a garage area under the lounge/bedroom.

My husband was still at work when I got home so I went around the outside of the house and put away things which I thought could fly away during the coming cyclone. The only thing I was unable to secure was my husband’s motor bike.

After my husband returned from work, we decided to go up the street to the local phone box to ring our families for Christmas. We thought Christmas Eve would be a good time because we didn’t know if the cyclone would affect our ability to ring on Christmas Day. It was raining and the rain was getting heavier but it was calm enough to make the trip in the car.

When we got home again we went to our next-door neighbour’s (Pete and Marg) house for a small get together so gathered our donations for the evening before going. While we were there the cyclone was intensifying and, eventually an alarm sounded throughout the barracks. It was a storm imminent warning for the Army personnel and it informed them that they needed to report to their work areas. Pete was stationed in the Medical section and my husband was stationed in the Signals Command area so they both went there.

While I was with Marg we lost power. We looked out the kitchen window because we could see flashes of light and saw that a power cable had broken up the street from us. That made us aware of the reason for the power failure. As the cyclone was continuing to intensify I decided to go home. My husband returned home soon after but Pete didn’t, so we were aware that Marg was in her home alone with her 2 young sons aged 6 months and 2 years. We had received Christmas presents from our families so we decided to open a few of them – baby clothes. Afterwards we decided to head to bed to, hopefully, sleep out the storm. My husband drifted off to sleep for a short while but, as I was nervous, I couldn’t. I remember going to the toilet on numerous occasions due to the nervousness and I noticed that the toilet bowl would fill almost to the brim and then suddenly empty with a sucking noise. It was very strange but also very scary.

Then, when our front door started opening and my husband got up closed it, but it continued to open and we needed to put furniture in front of it without success in keeping it closed. The storm was hitting the front of the house and I think the front of the house was bending and allowing the door to unlatch and open as there were no full supporting walls (apart from the end walls) along the front of the house.

My husband was wearing shorts only and as he walked through the lounge area some of the front louvre windows blew in and broke and he was gashed in his side with the flying glass. Luckily it was just a flesh cut and bleeding was stemmed quickly.

We were aware that the tin on our roof was being peeled off by the cyclone and when we looked out the windows we could see that the mango tree and coconut palms had fallen and the coconut palms had blocked our drive, so we were not able to get out in our car should be we need to.

The barracks had set up a system where there were street monitors who were equipped with a 2-way radio so my husband started flashing our street monitor with a torch but there wasn’t any response. We later found out that it had been seen and reported but the situation had been deemed too dangerous to respond at that time. There were no houses with phones and, of course, mobile phones did not exist at that time.

We went to our bathroom which is what we’d all been told to do if the cyclone looked like it was threatening the house. Our bathroom was very small containing just a bath with a shower over it, a hand basin and toilet and, although it had walls to the ceiling, it had a frosted glass door. After some time waiting in the bathroom my husband told me he thought we needed to leave the house. He had a torch and was shining it round the lounge/dining area and noticed the ceiling over the dining area was lifting which he showed me. I can still vividly see that sight.

As the storm was hitting the front of the house, we made our way through the kitchen to the back of the house and went down the steps to the underneath. After we stood there for a short while we decided to try to get to our neighbours’ house again.

Although it was windy we were able to go between our house yard and into theirs by crossing over the low side fence. Their house was the same layout as ours so we went up their back steps to their back door and knocked loudly. There wasn’t an answer so we assumed they had been evacuated so we went down the steps and we were standing there trying to work out what to do next. Then we heard a lot more noise and saw our house collapsing into the backyard – just like an unknown hand had swept it off the floor boards.

So, the house we had been living was destroyed over the night of Christmas Eve/Christmas Day though it had previously survived the bombing attacks during World War 2.

We eventually decided to see if we could open the store room door under our neighbours’ house to seek shelter in there. Luckily for us, they had left the key in the door lock that night and we found 2 foam rubber mattresses there. We then put one on the floor, laid on it and put the other over the top of us. We had our little chihuahua sized dog with us so she was between us on the mattress. We heard the neighbours’ house collapse too during the storm. Throughout the night there was so much noise which sounded like constant breaking glass and scraping metal. We also heard screaming type noises but couldn’t decipher whether they were human or a stricken dog or where the noises were coming from. Although we hoped that Marg and her children had been collected and taken to a safer place we weren’t sure so thought it could have been Marg’s children.

As the cyclone began to abate I heard Marg calling for help. We crawled out of the rubble of their house searched for them. My husband was able to climb the twisted steps up to the bathroom where he found Marg and the children trapped and Marg injured. The 2 children were sheltering under their mother. My husband was able to extract the 2 children and pass them to me. I put them into the storeroom where we had been and they were happy to stay there. My husband needed assistance to get Marg out as she was pinned under several walls and broken wood etc. While he went for help, I climbed up the steps to see Marg. She was pale and her pulse felt thready. She had a large gash around her knee but I was not able to clearly see it. Her legs were pinned over the edge of the bathtub where she had fallen backwards on the top of her sons who were sheltering in the bath – the younger one in a car basket and the older sitting/lying near him. I thought that as Marg knew her sons were now safe and help was on the way, it was also one of the worst times for her. So I stayed and talked to her while occasionally climbing down to check on the boys. From her house I could see all the way into the city where we hadn’t been able to before the cyclone. Every house I could see was damaged and most of the trees were on the ground. The light posts which were made of steel and like railway tracks were twisted and bent and there wasn’t any sounds of birds etc. It was actually very quiet then.

As men arrived to help in Marg’s rescue a truck was moving through our streets looking for survivors. So, I left the men to their work and took her young sons and my small dog to look for the boy’s father who hadn’t been able to leave his Army post. Pete was quite frantic and worried as he’d heard a call for help over the 2-way radio system looking for assistance at his home. I decided to stay in the medical clinic to help care for the boys as well as assisting in the medical centre along with the Army medics. At that time there weren’t any female Army personnel. While in the medical clinic I acted as a liaison for Army wives and in a triage position to allow the medics to do what they needed to. I also did some simple dressings, give tetanus injections and liaised with the Army medics.

All people living within the barracks were told they should not return to their houses because, what was left of them, needed to be inspected and passed as safe. Also, because we lived in a gated and patrolled facility, we were unlikely to experience looting. Most of the more robust Army buildings were standing and, although they had sustained damage, they were usable. The Army cooks supplied all meals for anyone who needed them because, like everyone, they had power issues and the food in freezers needed to be consumed. Washing and toileting facilities were almost non-existent. There was limited water and I remember washing my hands and face in rain water which had collected in puddles on the side of the road.

As Christmas night approached we were all advised that we should go to the area where our husbands worked. The signals centre had withstood the cyclone and was intact. The building was just 1 story, made of brick and didn’t contain any windows. It was normally a “secure” building and visitors were not allowed unless they were approved personnel. It was also normally air conditioned but, of course, not then because there wasn’t any power. As night fell people just chose an area on the floor and made themselves as comfortable as they could. It was hot and there was no chance of relief so with a lot of people, including many children, cramped into a small area it was really only a place to rest and wait out the night with minimal sleep.

On Boxing Day some of us were allowed to return to the wrecks of our houses so we could see the damage and salvage some of our possessions. I packed up many things, including some of the baby clothes sent as Christmas presents and put them into piles on the concrete slab under our house. I was extremely lucky to find my engagement ring which had been on a chest of drawers in our bedroom when we evacuated the house. It had fallen and rolled under some furniture which was still in our bedroom which didn’t have any walls. Our house had a floor but the only 2 walls left standing was the one between our bedroom and the spare room and between the spare room and lounge room.

I was very aware that non-essential people needed to be evacuated as soon as possible so the men could get to work within the community. So, I found an overnight bag and also found 1 change of clothes. As a nurse I would have been able to remain in Darwin to assist and work but I was also in the early stages of pregnancy and had experienced the threatened miscarriage only a few weeks prior to the cyclone. I also knew that our neighbour would be confined to hospitals with medical issues and her husband would be required to stay in Darwin as a result of the cyclone and their 2 boys needed someone to care for them. So, I chose to be evacuated and take the boys with me.

One of the Army officers called round to where all the Army wives and families were staying after the cyclone to compile a list of where they should be evacuated to. As my family lived in Sydney I opted to travel there. I discussed this with the boys’ father and he agreed that I should take the boys with me and then contact their grandparents who also lived in NSW. So, when we were requested to leave, we made our way to the Army guard gate where we were loaded onto a bus to travel to the airport. After getting on the bus, I was asked by an Army officer to get off the bus to discuss, with him, the travel of another Army wife. I didn’t know her prior to that time but, because she was 8 months pregnant and also needed to travel to Sydney, he asked me to assist and care for her as we went on the same flight to Sydney. So, my travel party was myself (early stages of pregnancy) with 2 small boys, my small dog (smuggled into an overnight bag also containing a change of clothes) and another lady who was 8 months pregnant.

There hadn’t been any phone connections prior to this time so, at that stage, we hadn’t been able to inform any of our families about our situation and travel arrangements.

My Evacuation Journey

We left Larrakeyah Barracks in the dusk of Boxing Day evening and travelled through the rubble strewn streets to the Darwin Airport. There we joined a line to board a Hercules plane. We boarded the plane by the back ramp but people were asked to leave any suitcases etc. to be packed on the plane. My little dog was hidden in my shoulder overnight bag so I kept it with me but the boys had a suitcase which their mother had packed prior to the destruction of their house. The younger boy needed nappies and bottles which I quickly transferred to my overnight bag with the dog and we made our way up the ramp.

The seats on the Hercules were made of a type of canvass and there was 4 rows which ran from back to front of the plane. We were crammed in with our knees touching the person sitting opposite so no corridor for easy movement through the plane. We were told that if we had children aged 2 and under we needed to nurse them on our laps. I had 2 young boys but was able to have a seat for the older one and nursed the younger one on my knees in front of my little pregnant abdomen. My overnight bag with the dog inside sat under my knees and the other Army wife sat next to me on the opposite side to the 2-year-old.

People’s luggage was packed on the back ramp of the plane and secured with a rope net. Later, when the ramp was raised that bundle of luggage sagged into the space at the end of the seats. We were told that, on the trip, if we needed a lavatory there was a portable toilet with a curtain around it at the end of the seats next to the sagging luggage in the net and if anybody was experiencing ear or excessive noise problems they could visit the cockpit. However, to get to either of those areas we needed to make our way forward or backward and scramble under the seat supports as both of those areas for me was on the opposite side of the plane. To get to the cockpit we also needed to climb up a ladder. Because there was no corridor space to walk through if you wanted to make that journey you needed to climb over and between other passengers’ knees. I never made either of those journeys because it was just too difficult.

I don’t recall any men apart from the RAAF crew who were transporting us out of Darwin, on the plane. My fellow passengers were all women and children of varying ages. Before leaving Larrakeyah, one of the medics I had been assisting in the medical clinic gave me a small dosed sedative tablet (Valium I think) for my dog so she would sleep through the journey. However, I opened my overnight bag after the plane took off and she was well behaved so I didn’t give it to my dog and later threw it out. I also noticed that other people had also brought pets on the plane but they were all well behaved for the entire trip.

Our journey south commenced at about 8pm. I had never travelled on a Hercules before so I thought that, as my trip to Darwin had taken about 4 hours in a jet from Sydney, we’d arrive in Sydney around midnight. But I was wrong. Firstly, we didn’t fly straight to Sydney. I remember that, as our plane took off, we leaned sidewards (me to my right) until the plane levelled and started to head southeast.

Although I thought we were travelling straight to Sydney I found out about 8 hours later that we’d gone to Brisbane. We landed there at about 4am and, because both boys were asleep, I was reluctant to get off the plane. However, a man from the Redcliffe Lions Club came on board to assist and convince me to leave the aircraft. We went into a hangar where we could get refreshments. The children were given sweets. I asked someone if I could ring my parents in Sydney to arrange for them to meet our plane when we arrived there. But I was dissuaded from that and as it turned out that was good.

When we got back onto the plane there were notably less people as some had left the journey in Brisbane. So those who were left were able to spread out a little more. As the plane again took off, I asked my travelling companion if she was still feeling well and not experiencing any contractions etc. She said she was OK and had been checked by a doctor while in Brisbane. She said that a doctor there was checking all the pregnant travellers. They’d missed me! I think people thought my little baby bump was as a result of the children who were with me – they thought they were my children.

So, our plane travelled on towards Sydney – we thought to Richmond RAAF base. I think we arrived in Sydney at Mascot Domestic Airport about 8.30am and it was good that I hadn’t been able to ring my parents as I would have sent them to Richmond. I think our Hercules was one of the first planes to arrive in Sydney so we were a bit of a novelty. In Sydney a lady who was wearing a Salvation Army uniform came to the plane and helped me to make our way to the hangar which had been allocated to help us on arrival.

We were told we needed to register when we went in. Initially, I wasn’t going to do that but realised I needed to mostly because I had 2 children with me who weren’t mine. The other pregnant lady and I parted company as we entered the hall. I later found out that she had been transported to HMAS Kuttabul because she needed to travel to a regional area. I believe those people were provided with assistance and then sent to their destinations by commercial planes but, my friend, because she was so pregnant, was nearly not allowed to travel onwards.

Through registering my little group (myself and the 2 boys) I attracted attention of the media. I was apparently interviewed by a reporter from a radio station but I don’t remember doing it but was later told by friends that they’d heard me (I think I was so fatigued) and I later appeared in a paper holding one of the 2 boys and my dog next to the Salvation Army lady.

If we had a travel destination we were arranged into transport. Our little group were directed to a taxi as were another 2 ladies also with 2 children. I had limited money but knew my parents would sort it out when I got to their home. But the taxi driver did not want any payment as he was providing the service free of charge as his way of supporting the survivors of the cyclone. There were no seat belts at that time and it was not unusual for a car to be transporting so many people. The first lady and 2 children exited the taxi in the city centre area and then we travelled to the northern area of Sydney to my parents’ home. They were so excited about me turning up there and not surprised that I’d brought others with me. My mother quickly made some sandwiches and drinks and gave them to the taxi driver and other lady because the taxi driver was taking her and her children to Newcastle.

Shortly after arriving and settling into my parent’s home I contacted the boys’ grandparents. One set lived about an hour and a half north of where we were. They came to collect the boys the next day (the 28th December). Shortly after they had left I received a phone call from someone at St Vincents Hospital in Sydney to say that Marg had now also arrived in Sydney and been admitted there. Of course I then rang her parents and told them.

Soon after that day I travelled to Sydney to see Marg. She told me that, when she was pulled out of the rubble of her home, she was taken on a door acting as a stretcher to the Darwin Hospital. There she joined a queue waiting for surgery on her leg. She was able to see Pete who went to the hospital before she was also evacuated on a Hercules plane for medical evacuations.

A few weeks after I arrived at my parents’ home there was a storm. It was a daytime storm and, though ferocious, was short. During the storm I was restless and became very alarmed when I heard and witnessed some storm damage.

Even today, 50 years on from Cyclone Tracy, I become nervous and very unsettled when there are storms, especially nighttime storms when I can’t see what is happening. If they occur during the night when I’m asleep I wake and become alarmed. When storms occur, I used to go from room to room checking windows and doors but can mostly control that impulse now. I become increasingly distressed though when there are strong winds which rattle the house and windows.

Apart from Cyclone Tracy I loved living and working in Darwin. Prior to the cyclone my husband and I had discussed thoughts of settling there and I still feel a great affection for the city and area. I have returned to Darwin on a few occasions but not at Christmas.

This Christmas, despite the terrible memories of Christmas 1974, I feel compelled to confront my trepidations and return with my second husband for the 50th anniversary of one of my most terrifying events of my life. I am aware though, that I am unlikely to be able to visit Larrakeyah Barracks, which was the site of my experiences, although I would dearly love to.

Lorraine Dickson

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