My recollections of Cyclone Tracy Christmas 1974 by Grahame Stewart

Each year during “Cyclone Season” (November to February) every week or two we would listen to the “Woomp Woomp Woomp Cyclone Alert ! Cyclone Alert !” on radio and television until most people including Velia (my wife) and I just became very complacent. In fact 3 weeks before Tracy I left Velia and my two young sons aged 7 & 9 at home, while I traveled to Katherine 300km away for work after another one of these warnings, telling her “No worries love it will just be a bit of wind and rain like the last one”. We had not had any cyclone hit Darwin for over 40 years. That night Velia decided to write her Christmas Cards and included a note with each card telling them about the years activities and that I was away in Katherine and a Cyclone was imminent. Luckily it was miles away from Darwin and that’s all it turned out to be just wind and rain ! Thank goodness!

Some how I felt that Tracy was different; I think we were sent home from work early and when we got the usual Woomp Woomp Woomp it described the Cyclone as expected to hit the coast at (I think it was) Gunn Point that evening. Some time before this I had worked as a survey draftsman with Lands Branch and when new 1:250000 maps were brought out the previous “Public Plan” copy would be thrown out. As a keen explorer and 4 wheel driver these old maps were invaluable so I had quite a collection of them. So when I heard the name of the point where the Cyclone was supposed to cross the coast I realized one of these maps was named with that name. I dug out the map and on examination found that it was due to cross the coast near Nightcliff Beach which was one of Darwin’s northern suburbs. But this was not mentioned in any of the cyclone warnings they just kept repeating the Naval name for the point.

I started clearing out our junk cupboard under the stairs and placed most of the cupboards contents on or dinning table which was close to the cupboard door which was much to Velia’s chagrin as she thought it would be just wind and rain again. But for some unknown reason I felt that this one was really coming. I put some camp mattresses on the floor of the cupboard for the boys, our gas lamp, and a couple of chairs for Velia and myself. Our friends who we had planned to go over to Mandorah with for Christmas Day called round to see if we were ready to go and were disappointed when we said we were staying home. They went down to the ferry and were advised that it was not running. Later we had supper and put the boys to bed only to have them come back down stairs after a short while saying they were getting wet in bed. The winds had increased in strength and when we went up to check we found the rain coming horizontally across the rooms even after we closed and locked the louvres. So we all headed down to the cupboard and on the way the boys saw their Christmas presents and pleaded to have them now instead of the morning. They were two of a very few children who got to keep their presents. Velia and I had decided to buy ourselves a Polaroid camera which was new technology in those days. It was sitting on top of our fish tank and all night it rocked back and forward but did not fall but the rain certainly ruined it.

Some time later the wind died down to an almost absolute silence as the eye of the cyclone passed over us. Velia and I came out and I went outside to check on the dogs in their shed but it had blown over so I brought them up to the house and put them in the back of our Nissan Patrol. When I got back inside Velia was resting on one of our TV Recliner chairs and the winds had started up again then above the sound of the wind I heard this ominous roar and I yelled “Velia Go!” Fortunately she reacted almost immediately and headed for the cupboard because the next second a sheet of galvanized iron sliced though the fly-wire, the louvres and heavy drapes and sliced into the chair where Velia had been sitting seconds earlier. Had she not moved so fast she would have been sliced in half. When we were back in the cupboard we could hear items crashing though the wall and windows as the wind was now coming from the opposite direction and carrying all the rubbish it had accumulated. When I selected the cupboard under the stairs I was trying to prevent anything crashing down on us from above but when things started coming through the side walls I realized that the wall at the end of the cupboard was just a sheet of fibro, so I grabbed the kitchen table and tipped everything on the floor and dragged it in pushed it up against the fibro wall and pushed my chair against it to hold it in position. Then took off my belt and looped it over the door to hold it shut and that was where we stayed till morning and after the wind had ceased.

When we emerged the next morning I checked that the dogs were safe then started looking about to see the damage and as the laundry wall had been blown out we were able to see across the Ludmilla School grounds, across The Narrows to the RAAF base and Aerodrome because not a tree stood to block the view. I commented to Velia that “there had to be at least 5000 people dead in this town.”

So after righting the dogs shed and making sure their yard was secure we jumped in the Nissan Patrol and headed to Velia’s mothers house in Rapid Creek. It took us over ¾ hour to drive the 4 kms to her house dodging fallen power lines broken down cars and other piles of rubbish. When we arrived we saw that the roof had been completely torn off, she was inside still in her nighty covered in mud, grass and leaves. When the roof was torn off she she moved into the shower and said that the shower rail had saved her because it had stopped a large beam crashing down on her. I went in and checked the scene I just put one finger on the shower rail and it crashed to the floor and took the beam with it. I think someone was looking after her that night.

After checking that Velia’s mum was OK we drove round checking up on other friends. One couple had survived the cyclone OK but their house was brick veneer with a square concrete beam on top of the walls with large bolts through to hold the roof on but the wind was so strong it lifted the whole roof up and the curtains were blown out through the gap then the roof came down and left ¾ of the curtains hanging outside. Another friend had all the walls blown out and they and two small children were left hanging on to the edge of the floor boards until a fridge slid across the floor and swept them into the pool and fortunately the fridge missed them all.

When we I got home I picked some of the galvanized iron sheets lying around and climbed onto the roof and patched it as well as I could so we had somewhere that we could stay dry.

We also chatted with the neighbors across the road for the first time since they moved in a couple of months before. So invited them over to have some Christmas cake and warm champagne. They came over and we sat round in our lounge room which still had water all over the floor and while there they confided that they still had the phone on and if we wanted to let family know that we were OK to come over in the morning. So when we got over there we were invited in to a house without a thing out of place or any moisture inside but that didn’t stop the woman complaining about the terrible damage because their frightened dog peed on the white decorator rug she had on the floor of the lounge That was their only damage! The next day she was complaining again that her husband had brought a sick woman home from the hospital, as it was damaged and overcrowded, it was just as a stop-over on the way to the airport.

The Cyclone brought out the best in some people and the worst in others. There were stories of people looting houses with the occupant dead and pinned to the door by a star picket. I heard the police caught them and threw them in the back of a paddy wagon and the story goes that they were just left in there. A very appropriate punishment but I don’t believe it really happened. During the evacuation a number of men dressed as women were hauled off the buses going to the Airport which were supposed to be carrying women and children only.

Most houses didn’t have water connected for about 3 or 4 days and the only way to wash was to stand beside the leaks in the water main from Manton Dam., We were lucky as one of Velia’s friends invited us over for a shower and afternoon tea. Nellie Manolas was renowned for making the tastiest Baklava I have ever eaten.

Maj.Gen. Stretton flew into Darwin and organized the evacuation and as Velia and I had decided to stay and help with the reconstruction we decided to fly our two boys to my sisters place in Brisbane as they were the only relatives in a capital city. So we took the boys next door to the Ludmilla School which was being used as an evacuation centre and Velia and I took it in turn sitting with the boys until a bus came to take them to the airport to join the huge planes that were lined up ready to go as soon as they were filled. And I mean filled, the flight the boys were on had over 600 passengers on board and each boy was picked up and lifted into a spot saying “you should fit in there”. We had expected the boys would sit together and Velia had given Andrew a “Lions” fruit cake and the only knife she could find, one with a blade about 6 inches long. Thank goodness Hijacks were unheard of in those days. Andrew decided to give it to the hostess who cut it up and handed it round to as many as she could.

Because of the appalling behavior of some of the waiting relatives, because they were running out on to the tarmac and pulling sheets off some of the injured to see if it was their relative, a decision was made to ban everyone from the airport and Red Cross would advise when your relatives were able to be picked up. Unfortunately thinking that my sister Carolyn and husband Paul would be there to meet the boys we had pinned the boys’ names in large letters to their shirts and told them that Auntie Carolyn and Uncle Paul would pick them up. So when the Red Cross lady asked for the surname the boys didn’t know and when Mr & Mrs Cardenti rang up looking for two boys Red Cross didn’t put two and two together so the boys were taken out to Wakol Army Barracks until their Auntie and Uncle could be found. Michael the younger boy thought that was great because “they fed us ham & tomato sandwiches and Coke and as much as we wanted”. Meanwhile we rang my sister to find out if everything was OK and were told they hadn’t been able to find out anything in Brisbane, we told them that the boys had left hours ago and they contacted Red Cross and sorted it out. Meanwhile Velia thought she was having an appendicitis attack but after seeing a doctor was assured that it was only nerves.

This decided us that we would not be staying to rebuild Darwin so I put what looked like a heavy chain attached to the collar of both the Doberman dogs we owned and took them out to the lone policeman who was trying to guard Casuarina Shopping Centre and told him that if he let the dogs accompany him on his rounds that no-one would give him any further problems. Then we went home, packed up the Nissan Patrol with as much camping gear and any food we still had, picked up the fuel vouchers organized by the evacuation committee and the $50 we were allowed to take out of the bank and headed for Brisbane.

As we approached Pine Creek 150 miles or 260 Kms South we were stopped on the highway by the local policeman who directed us into town where a whole bullock was roasting on a spit and we were served lovely roast beef sandwiches. After this we continued on to Katherine where we saw how some others were traveling. One driver pulled up beside me and asked “Which way do you think is down” As Katherine streets are almost as flat as a billiard table I inquired what he meant. He said that he was going to have to push it to get it started in the morning, When we looked at the car we saw it had items coming out of the boot all the way up the back window and across the roof and to top this off was a child’s rocking horse still rocking backwards and forwards even with the car being stationary.

We spent the night with a friend in Katherine then headed back on the road and drove to Tennant Creek where the residents had set up another recovery and feeding station for the hundreds of people heading south. When Velia said that the only thing she really wanted was to sleep for a while the woman in charge of the recovery station rang her husband at home and told him to turn on the air-conditioner in their bedroom as she was sending two people over who needed a rest. People all along the way were just so helpful and accommodating. Many towns had set up these recovery and feeding stations as the $50 we were allowed to take from our bank wasn’t going to last very long if we had needed to pay for food or fuel. At the house in Tennant Creek I was awakened by a loud banging of loose corrugated iron flapping in the breeze on a garage being built by the next door neighbor. In seconds I was out of bed and raced next door and started throwing old tyres and bricks up on to his roof to hold the iron down. I never did get back to apologise to that neighbor but I guess my nerves were a bit shot by then.

When we got to Mt Isa Velia’s sister had organized for us to stay at her house even though they were away on holidays which was really good for us to have a proper nights sleep and Velia was able to cook some food. Then as the road across to Julia Creek was cut by floods we headed to Winton via Boulia but even out in these out back areas people had set up feeding stations and places to sleep for the many travelers. People all along the way were just so helpful and accomodating!

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