Still here – Just! – Tim West

21 Dec 2014

A lifetime spent in the Top End is full of near death experiences ‘NDE’s’ but the one that holds the
most vivid and emotional memories is that night in ’74 that stole my childhood innocence and
changed my World view forever!

I awoke about midnight, the last of the household to be jolted awake. I remember putting my feet
down onto the floorboards and thinking I had stepped into a pool. The several inches of cold water
immediately heightened my senses and I was instantly wide awake and acutely aware that the
situation was not good. I opened my bedroom door to the hallway on our elevated house to a scene
of organised chaos as my parents were barking orders to my elder siblings to get everyone into the
bathroom. Mum and Dad and the elder siblings had been through a bad Cyclone in Port Vila
(Vanuatu) in the fifties so they knew what to expect but they had no idea of what was about to
unfold. I remember huddling under the bathroom wash basin with my sisters, with Mum periodically
popping her head in the door to check on us.

We had all grown up with pretty severe Wet season storms, but this was different. The sound was
unique; the constant base roar was like being in close proximity to heavy machinery at full revs,
interspersed with the shrill screams of an enraged Banshee. But what was really alarming was the
relentless crashing, banging and smashing that was all around us. To put it in local terns, to say we
were ‘gunnaring’ ourselves was an understatement!

Mum stuck here head in the door and snapped, c’mon were going. Where! Was my immediate
thought, but you never questioned Mother, she was a Teacher! We immediately assembled at the
edge of the hallway and looked left to see our Father and elder Brother with their backs against the
bulging plate glass sliding doors of the living room. Mum screamed at them to get the hell out of
there as we made our way down the hallway to my bedroom. As we made it to my doorway I turned
to see my Dad and Brother coming down the hallway with the house exploding and disappearing
behind them. I ran and jumped on my bed as the Family assembled and caught their breath. We had
only been in my bedroom several minutes when everyone started staring above my head with faces
of sheer horror. I turned and looked up to see the top corner of the room cracking and then the
ceiling lifting and dropping like a set of gaping jaws. I was first to the door, I ain’t staying here!
Dad barked the order, “Right! We are going downstairs, now!” hold onto each other and don’t let
go. Again I thought, how? That end of the house is gone and the stairs probably too! I realised we
weren’t going down the staircase as we hurriedly moved through the Parent’s bedroom to the fire
escape. It took Dad and Steve all their might to push open the fire escape door and the hold it open
as we all huddled together on that little landing. Thinking back, we probably owe our lives to the
huge Tamarind tree in our front yard that shielded that end of the house from the seaward side. A
remnant of the old Nightcliff market gardens no doubt.

Dad immediately slid down the ladder and my younger sister Vanda was lowered down to him. They
disappeared into the darkness along the besser block wall that ran along underneath the end of the
house. Out of the darkness I hear my name called and I’m lowered down by my brother with vice-
like grip on my wrists. I feel my Dad grab my ankles and then hear the piercing scream of my little
Sister. Dad immediately releases my ankles and is gone. Sheer terror arrives for the first time!
Where’s Vanda, where’s Dad? The next thing I know I’m airborne on a gust of wind, flying like
Superman with my Brother frantically holding onto me. As I fall back down against the steel ladder of
the fire escape I feel dad’s hands grab my ankles again. Vanda was OK, she just panicked being left
alone, away from the rest of us, as any 7 year old would.

We all finally made it down from the disintegrating house and slid along the protective concrete wall
and under the house, to our final safe haven. Dad, being a Carpenter’s Son loved his timber and had
recently completed a solid Jarrah storage area for this downstairs Bar. It was back against the block
wall, had a vinyl curtain along the front of it, and was tall enough for an adult to sit under. It had all
the Xmas beverages stored under there and most of the Family had bomb-racks or cartons of beer to
sit on, me, I got the crate of Quench bottles. I was on the end closest to the wind and the least
clothed as well. I only had a pair of jocks on, and like many that night, I experienced the coldest night
of my life, and I’ve stood on the summit of Zugspitz! But ay! I was still alive! Just!

Once Dad had us safely under the bench, he ventured out to see if the storage shed and workshop
down the other end of the house could offer us any better shelter. Probably just scouting out the
possibilities and constantly assessing more options; his RAAF training no doubt. As he was lucky to
be 55kg wringing wet, as he got to the end of the breezeway brickwork he was swept out from
under the house to everyone’s horror! More sheer terror! Luckily the Hills Hoist caught him and he
crawled his way back under the house, to our relief.

As Mum and Dad were Cyclone survivors Mum started discussing tidal surge, much to Dad’s distain.
This caused the greatest loss of life in the Port Vila Cyclone so Mum was rather concerned because
we could taste the saltwater in the horizontal rain that permeated everything that night. I remember
this scaring me to the core because I knew we would have a hard time surviving the raging
floodwater, even as a 9 year old I understood how powerful water was from swimming in
Freshwater (Rapid Creek) in the Wet season, and bodysurfing the dumpers at Nightcliff Beach. Mum
kept raising it too; “I can still taste saltwater Ray”! She needed an answer to what we would do. It
was obviously worrying Dad until he thought it through. As always, his comeback was calculated,
precise and factual. “It’s a bloody low tide Woman; stop worrying, it ain’t going to happen”.
I remember sitting on those mongrel bottles, shivering and falling into a trance-like state from the
incessant howling of the wind and the flashing of lightning. Amazingly, there was no thunder,
drowned out by the relentless roar no doubt. I became captivated as to what I would see in the next
flash of lightning from my protected little hidey-hole. Furniture, fridges, and endless sheets of
corrugated iron were it, until the eye was upon us. The silence was surreal and the yelling started
from around the neighbourhood. Is everyone Ok was common shout. With Dad shouting back, “it’s
only the eye, stay put, it’s coming back!” We heard a vehicle and that same enquiring retort from
Paddy Peckover, the local Fireman. I will never forget Dad’s dry Aussie reply. “Yeah, we’re alright,
but you bloody won’t be if you don’t get back under cover!”

That short 10 minutes of relief was glorious. Then that bitch Tracy started again, from the other
direction. With what seemed like more fury and determination. I was now seeing what seemed like
great chunks of houses flying through the air, in the intermittent lightning flashes. It all seemed like
it was never going to end until everything was gone. I started to think about my mates as I sat there
in sheer terror, shivering my little bony arse off! Were they all right, did they get under cover like us?
This preoccupation with seeing them again kept me occupied until the first rays of dawn appeared
and the raging hell of that mega-storm started to abate.

Dad and Steve climbed out of our shelter and ventured out to the front yard. Dad saying “everyone
stay put”! As if; I followed them out a few minutes later to a scene that is indelibly embedded in my
psyche! I looked out towards the sea and there was nothing left! Just piles of rubble and bits of
house everywhere! The trees! Where were the trees? Not a leaf in sight, just skeletons of what was
lush tropical vegetation 12 hours prior. My mates! Where were my mates Joey, Danny and Pauly? I
found out later that they had all bolted down the track earlier in the night, as most local-mob did.
I turned and looked up towards the top of Cunjevoi Cres, to my disbelief the Bones and McIntosh’s
houses were still standing, but everything else was flattened for as far as the eye could see. My next
thought was the pets, and as we ventured out into the back yard a little yap-yap came from the
floorboards above. We turned around to see our 6 week old Corgi pup and cat peering out from
under the collapsed bed in the parent’s bedroom. Mum had shoved them under the bed as we went
down the fire escape and they had miraculously survived the onslaught. A single positive in a
mountain of negatives! But ay! We were still alive! Just!

The neighbourhood slowly started to assemble in the Bones lounge room. They kept all of the kids
inside as the Men scouted the wreckage to account for everyone. I vividly remember peering out the
window watching the Men removing the body of the young naval officer from the house next to
McIntosh’s. They placed him in the back of an EH ute and brought his hysterical wife and young baby
over to the Bone’s house. The women hurriedly got her and her very blue baby warm. I remember
Dad later commenting on how brave that man was as he died shielding his wife and baby in the bath
tub.

There were many heroic stories like this that came out of Tracy, and every Xmas since I stop and pay
respects to those that didn’t make it; to the many lives cut short and the many Families affected by
the loss of a loved one. The words “Lest We Forget” resonate just as loudly for me regarding Tracy as
they do for those great Men that have made the ultimate sacrifice for this Country.

It will be at our peril if we do forget!

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