By Mike Welsh
One telling aspect of the firestorm was the obvious resilience of Canberra’s famously ordered sex industry. At midnight, with the charred remains of over 500 homes still glowing in the South, four people dead and scores of injuries, the red light district of Mitchell in the North still bore its distinct crimson “open for busines” glow.
This week marks the 17th anniversary of the ferocious firestorm which roared through Canberra’s South. Jan 18 2003 remains an extraordinary and unforgettable day. A day when over 500 homes were destroyed and 4 people lost their lives.
Just after midday (with the local ABC still broadcasting sport from Melbourne) my radio station 2CC had already been on maximum alert for six hours. The official warning “siren” sound effect broadcast in the event of a disaster had been wailing since early morning. Very few including some of we radio “old hands” had heard this sound effect before.
Canberra, which had been casually alert for most of the past 10 days was now about to become extremely alarmed.
I was tossed a set of car keys and told to get to a press conference at which it was anticipated a state of emergency would be declared.
Having landed in Canberra two weeks earlier and with no idea in which direction I should head, I made a rare executive decision commandeering a junior journo to ride shotgun.
It wasn’t until we had left Northbourne Ave and were crossing Commonwealth Ave Bridge that Junior Journo-who’d arrived in town just 3 weeks ago- sheepishly confessed to being just as clueless.
We continued to drive and miraculously stumbled upon the inner-south suburb of Curtin-the then home of the ACT emergency services HQ.
Our day and that of tens of thousands of Canberrans was about to become surreal.
Hastily arranged, in no particular pecking order, at a long, narrow conference room table alongside Canberra based network “superstars”, we waited. (Laurie Oakes and Paul Bongiorno, in summer weekend attire of shorts, floral shirts and Dr Scholls sandals is a rare sight to behold)
With choppers hovering overhead dousing the embers which had begun to fall on the roof, a trio of slightly agitated and confused men (AFP Chief, ACT Fire Chief and ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope) huddled together.
From just centimetres away it was clear from the animated but whispered conversation that possibly there were just a few too many “chiefs” with no clear format for declaring a State of Emergency.
State of Emergency eventually but inelegantly declared, we headed into the heart of the fire, only to be stopped by police and funnelled with scores of vehicles fleeing the destruction into the car park of a large shopping mall.
We spent the next 2 hours among a large and ever-growing group of people who had been ordered to evacuate their homes and suburbs or be arrested.
Their shocked and defeated body language was on display for all to see, people alighted vehicles which had been hastily jammed with their worldly possessions: suitcases, picture frames and pets. Many had had less than 10 minutes to evacuate. Some already knew they had no home to return to. Others just hoped and prayed. Being a journalist on a day like this was very difficult.
An eerie darkness fell over the south of Canberra mid-afternoon accompanied by a bright orange ring around the horizon and the frightening tornado-like sound which was a ferocious fire storm ravaging over 500 family homes nearby.
Back in Mitchell on air that night I took a call from the BBC. Londoners were waking to the far-fetched news that the Capital city of Australia had been totally destroyed by fire. The BBC man was surprised we were still able to broadcast and needed some convincing that Canberra had not been completely obliterated.
We took hundreds of calls to air that night, including one from an eccentric elderly lady who had been forced into a makeshift emergency shelter for the night. Like many she only had time to pack one large bag of her belongings before being ordered to leave her home. At the shelter some “low bastard” she told me had stolen her lippy and several wigs from her stash of possessions.
Another pig-headed open line caller refused to grasp the grim reality that the city was essentially locked down and cut in half. Her boyfriend, a methadone patient, was “climbing the walls” because his local clinic had closed. She demanded I get her man his Methadone.
But the most significant aspect of the long day of disaster was the obvious resilience of Canberra’s famously ordered sex industry. At midnight, with the charred remains of over 500 homes still glowing in the South, four people dead and scores of injuries, the Red Light district of Mitchell in the North still bore its distinct crimson “open for busines” glow.