Saturday, February 28, 2009

Despite Our Sorrow, We'll Face Tomorrow

Hand On Heart, A Salute To Australian Resilience

Photographs copyright: DAVID McMAHON


Vivid golden-yellow is the colour that Melburnians chose to wear as the bushfires raged around this city, starting on 30 January and continuing to the present moment as the blazes continue.

Everywhere, people wear ribbons on their chests and yesterday the "Herald Sun", the city’s biggest-selling paper, distributed these wristbands as well, in conjunction with the state government. All the money raised goes to the Red Cross appeal.

Despite the deaths (more than 200) caused by the bushfires and the number of homes destroyed (more than 5000), I've chosen today to share stories of survival. Thanks to a report by Jamie Walker and Lauren Wilson in the broadsheet newspaper "The Australian", I can tell you about the courage of two of the oldest survivors .....

In the Strzelecki Ranges east of Melbourne, 97-year-old Charlie Richardson chose not to flee. He stayed to defend his property. When his home was destroyed, he took refuge in a horse trough.

He wrapped himself in a blanket and dived beneath the water, coming up periodically for whatever air he could breathe. Hours later, he was taken to hospital when rescue crews found him crawling toward the road, bravely waving a torch to flag down cars in the dark.

A Koornalla woman, believed to be about 80, turned down a offer of assistance from Country Fire Authority (CFA) volunteer firefighters. She chose instead to stay and protect her home. "Don't worry about me, I'll be right. But thanks for coming,'' she said.

She had to save herself by running down to her dam, tying one end of a piece of rope around her wrist and the other to a fencepost before submerging herself in the muddy water. It would have been a huge physical challenge for anyone, but more so for this brave homeowner. She had recently had hip replacement surgery.

Then there were some amazing quotes from people who had been touched by tragedy ...

"I was on the farm when the fire came through and it was just too fast. I ran and jumped in the dam and pulled my shirt over my head and stayed there for an hour and a half until I could get out. I'm luckier than many because I still have my wife and others don't.'' - Neville Goulding, who celebrated his 37th birthday the night before the fire that destroyed his home.

"House blessing. Bless our home, our lives, our friends. With love that Lord on thee depends. Amen.'' - Noelene Pyle, laughing as she reads the words inscribed on a single plate, one of the few things left intact in the ash and twisted metal remaining in the wreckage of her Wandong home.

"The fire was like a jet engine coming through the trees'' - John Pyle (husband of Noelene Pyle) .

"There were children running down the streets with flames behind them, it was hell. I never want to go back to that place, never." - CFA firefighter John Munday, describing Marysville on Black Saturday.

"Sing it again!'' - An unknown member of the congregation at Rod Laver Arena after the haunting rendition of "I Am Australian" during the National Day of Mourning ceremony last Sunday.


"It doesn't have a single crack or anything.'' – Samantha Wilson, 19, clutching a ceramic model of the Disney character Pluto, a present from her grandmother. The souvenir was one of the only objects left intact after her parents were killed while trying to defend their Mudgegonga property.

"There was just no air, it was like you were breathing vapour.'' – Kinglake resident Jason Lynn, who used what he thought was his last breath to tell his wife and children he loved them, while he lay on the muddy banks of his dam. He kept his mobile phone pressed against his head to speak to his family as friends and his local minister Shane Lepp prayed for him and tried to keep him conscious. He survived.

"I could tell him by his big toe, because it looked like the only piece that wasn't burnt at the time.'' – Sherrill Carta, who thought her husband Bill was dead. They both suffered severe burns as they separately fled their burning property. Bill arrived at The Alfred hospital by helicopter and Sherrill by ambulance. In an incredible coincidence, each only realised the other was alive when they were reunited in the hospital’s burns unit.

''Until you taste it, breathe it, smell it and see the speed, you can never understand how terrifying a bushfire is.'' - Irene Passi, who lost her Buxton home while she helped save another property.

''She had four mobile phones strung around her neck and was answering them by turn while organising a sausage sizzle.'' - Anglican bishop Philip Huggins, describing the deputy manager of the Wandong recovery centre who doubles as a CFA group leader. Huggins led the post-fire prayers of reflection from the back of a truck during a service at Wandong football oval and said it was one of the spiritual highlights of his life.

''Faith doesn't explain everything, but it's a great consolation.'' - Father Vince Jewell, Marysville's visiting priest, whose church burned to the ground.

''I just thought, bugger it, I'm not going, I'm going to stay and try to save this place. We'd put too much into it to let it just go up in flames.'' - Greg Cherry, the owner and sole defender of the Crossways Historic Country Inn in Marysville. His determined resistance against the firestorm saw him acknowledged as the last man standing in the town.

''Listen kids, we can't get out. Our house is on fire. We are going to die in here. We love you, we love you. Please pray for us.'' - Phone call from Kinglake resident Bernie Hansell to his children. Hansell, a Vietnam veteran and retired federal police officer, drove along the burning Kinglake-Healesville road with his wife Jan – and miraculously beat the firestorm.


(Extra, extra, read all about it: I've been interviewed here. Thank you to all those who have already followed this link, commented and voted.)

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Photo Hunt. Today's theme: "Thankful".

66 comments:

Kathy said...

I was reading your quotes of people who had survived the bush fires and trying to think of what it must have been like fearing your very life could have ended right then. I can't imagine what what these people have gone through and suffered. My prayers and thoughts go out to them.

TheWritersPorch said...

" And the strong will survive"

The human spirit of survival is an awesome thing to behold! BRAVO to these awesome people!

GreenJello said...

Wow. What a way to start my day. Thanks for the very moving post, David.

Jazz said...

Thank you David for posting this.

AirmanMom said...

My prayers are lifted for all touched by this event!

~AM

Atlântico Azul said...

THE PEOPLE'S STRENGTH!!!

Mojo said...

We hear similar stories here all the time of people who elect to stay in their homes on the barrier islands in the teeth of a major hurricane.

I've never really been sure if this was courage or just lunacy. In the face of something like a hurricane or a firestorm, let's face it mate... there's damned little resistance you can put up other than the symbolic kind. Try to take on nature on her own terms and you'll lose a lot more times than you win. Challenging nature on her own terms by choice... I really question the wisdom of that.

If you survive though, you can rebuild. Putting a life back together from smoke and ash... that takes courage. But in the words of someone I forget who lost everything to a similar circumstance, "Now? Everything is new again."

And that's the true beauty I see in the spirit of the people down there. And everywhere actually. You're at your very best when things are at their very worst.

Daryl said...

This moved me to tears

scarlethue said...

Thank you for posting this. On my side of the states we're very removed from fires as a natural disaster. The speed with which those fires move... it's hard to believe. What a terrible thing.

GoneBackSouth said...

What sad stories, and such heroics too. Moving stuff indeed.

kimmy said...

I saw all that on the news. How tragic. You and your fellow Australians are in my thoughts...

Kimmy

Sarah said...

What resiliency. I'll be praying for these brave folks...

Dick Hensgen said...

I was very touched by these quotes. I live in Southern California -- and have been around a number of fires -- but nothing like what you and your people went through. I was and am praying for recovery. These survivors are amazing.

Barbaloot said...

That last quote about broke my heart! I'm glad to know they ended up being safe.

Tracie said...

thanks for sharing this handful of recounts from survivors. the human will to survive is so excellently described here. our hearts & prayers continue to go out to all of you.

blessings,
Tracie

AK said...

This is heart crunching. My prayers and thoughts go to all those ho have suffered this great tragedy and who are still suffering.

Tessa said...

The face of courage and fortitude - I salute them all.

Another superb post, David. Thank you.

jinksy said...

Human courage and resilience is aweinspiting - thenk you for these examples...

Hilary said...

Such a moving post. Thank you for that glimpse at human strength and will.

French Fancy said...

Those quotes make it seem so very real - which might sound ridiculous after the images that the rest of the world have seen on the news. But these stories of survival against all odds have far more realism than seeing the pictures on the television.

Great blogging.

kaye said...

great post. such a simple photo to represent the wave of emotions evoked by your post. praying for all of the victims

Jennifer H said...

Sitting here inside Starbucks, with eyes filled with tears.

Just imagining, as much as anyone can who hasn't been through it, what all of those people went through. It breaks my heart.

Misty Dawn said...

Oh David! I have goosebumps, along with tears in my eyes. My heart and prayers go out to the people of Australia.

As always, this is a truly spectacular post.

Your interview was awesome too, by the way.

Cath said...

Dumbstruck.
Humbled.

You know you are all in my thoughts and prayers.

introspection said...

This is such a touching post. I truly believe that when tragedy strikes God is the only saviour. Heroes are born from these catastrophes. Praying for all those affected. Thanks for bringing us closer to all the brave ones.

Thank you David for visiting my blog about Minu. I am not sure where I can post my thanks to make sure they reach you.

Maggie May said...

Terrible times for many people. It was uplifting to read of the way some people escaped.
Really, really sad for all who didn't.

Thanks for highlighting the bravery that some people show during these life & death situations.
Great post as it helped to give us in England some idea of what is now happening around Melbourne. The news is not mentioning anything about the bush fires now.

Thoughts and prayers, as always.

Michelle said...

Wow, what a great story!

The Things We Carried said...

David,

I am in tears and can barely see to type a response to this heartrending tragedy. I am so very sorry for the losses Australians are enduring and the pain they are left to bear.

The human moments you have shared remind us we are alike, fragile.

Sending prayers for all of you from The States.

lucy said...

My God David...tears are falling and I have no other words.

Baino said...

The stories keep coming don't they. I heard one woman say minutes before her house was consumed that they didn't even smell smoke! I notice that this weekend, people are not being so cavallier and seeking out shelters rather than staying with their homes. At the end of the day, it's just bricks and mortar.

Sandi McBride said...

I don't think anyone knew the extent of the hell that you all have been through. We sort of knew...but we didn't know enough. Sometimes I think we can't see beyond our own noses, these things don't happen to anyone but us...how wrong we are...God Bless all of you and keep you safe...by all means, REBUILD and REBUILD against the next fire storm...our thoughts and prayers are with you
Sandi and Mac

Denise said...

God bless you all David, wonderful post that gives us some insight into what you have all had to contend with out there. These brave, brave people's stories are a credit to Australia.

® ♫ The Brit ♪ ® said...

Fantastic post David!
It's so horrendous what these people have all gone through...

That last quote of the man making the telephone call to his children made me cry... terrible, just terrible.

Tranquility said...

Terrifying, but AMAZING stories. Thank you for sharing them!

rosiescribble said...

Thinking of you all. I've been moved by your writing.

Eddie Bluelights said...

I read the blog again and again, and I'lll probably read it a few more times to get the true horror. Of course, as a Brit, I have heard about bush fires, as have us all, but never actually appreciated just how horrifying the experience of being in one must be. Thank you for the amazing stories showing true Australian grit and how some of them survived. I am surprised there were not more than 200 deaths. Best wishes

Romicas said...

This is a very ineresting and important post. Thanks for sharing!
Thanks for our comment about my sky in SkywatchF.
Love

Romicas

Pouty Lips said...

I will read this several times I'm sure because it is so touching and inspiring. If I were to read this report, not knowing the object of the danger was a bushfire, I would think it was describing war. Petrifying.

Anonymous said...

2 years ago I would have been caught up in those fires with my 3 children who would have been only 6, 2 and 1 at the time. They went through my old hometown and the house we lived in has a scorched back door and no backyard or garden left. A lady I went to playgroup with has 5 children, she homeschools them and is one amazing lady. Last year her husband died in a workplace accident and she was left alone with her children and she never once complained about how unfair it was or why did it have to happen to her. On Black Saturday the fire came roaring towards her house and she grabbed her kids and fled. She went back later that night when it was all but smoldering and saw that she had lost everything. Her house was gone and she had nothing. Including Insurance. She is one story among so many, and she was lucky because she survived. Her neighbours didn't. They tried to save her house so she wouldn't suffer anymore. The Human spirit never fails to amaze.

Lene said...

Ohhh... This moved me to tears in the midle of the nigt... I would like to wear one of these yellow ribbons myself - in sympathy whith your people and your country. Thankful for you charing this amazing story.

Despite the sorrow - you`ll face tomorrow!!! Great :)

Sylvia K said...

An incredible post, David! How terrifying, how brave, how heartbreaking and their stories are all of the above! Thank you for sharing them all!

Kimberly said...

What a beautiful tribute that was, David.

Tiaras and Tantrums said...

oh this gave me chills down my arms to read

Chris said...

From the resilience displayed here, I have no doubt that you will all be stronger in the end.

My thoughts are with you and your beautiful land!

J9 said...

I've found this to be very moving and powerful, and sent it along to the Australians we know living in the US.

Pat - An Arkansas Stamper said...

Thank you for sharing these moving stories, David. My thoughts and prayers continue for the people who have been affected by this tragedy.

Athaliah said...

Wow, really thanks for posting, the quotes are truly moving. Trying to envision what it must have been like... wow.

katherine. said...

humans can be amazingly resilient.

It was great to read these quotes...thanks for posting!

J said...

inspiring

Corey~living and loving said...

This post is so powerful....and emotional....and just touched me to my core.

Thank you David.

Working mum said...

Moving. Difficult to type with tears in my eyes.

Colin Campbell said...

So true. I have been very impressed by the generosity of Aussies. Too bad it takes events like this to bring out the best in people.

julie said...

Reading about what has happened to these people left me teary-eyed and I really wish them all well :)

Thanks for sharing their stories :)

Shrinky said...

Such moving testimony to the human spirit, and a wonderfully written post David. So much work now.

SnoopyTheGoon said...

This is a truly great pots, David. May Aussies rebuild and recover from this disaster as soon as humanly possible.

Have a great weekend.

gen/entry said...

What a pretty entry for this week's theme. Thanks for sharing my friend. happy weekend.

SASSY MOM said...

This is heartwarming... My prayers are with you and all the people behind this. have a great weekend!

Fat, frumpy and fifty... said...

The power of Life is resonating from your very powerful post David.

Reasons to be Cheerful 1,2,3 said...

This made me cry. I have thought of those affected every day since it happened.

The Quintessential Magpie said...

David, I can barely see to post them from the tears falling. I'm so sorry that this has happened to you wonderful, Australians. It's so sad. We had some fires in Florida (and every day would wake up with ash covering our cars), but nowhere near the losses you are experiencing there. My heart goes out to all of those involved in this. Prayers for the safety of you and your family...

Sheila

M said...

How incredibly sad for all of Australia let alone those survivors who lived to tell.

This past summer my son was evacuated from a cancer camp due to fires- it was hell waiting to hear that they were safe and sound...and on a bus ride home.

imbeingheldhostage said...

Heart wrenching. Amazing stories.





I voted, David.

Sandy said...

When I saw all the reports on television, I just couldn't believe the scope of the fires. My heart just ached for all of the people. Your post is a good one. Thanks, David.

diXymiss said...

An eXtraordinary and compelling piece of powerful journalism here, David. Well done. Blessings to you all, as you work with courage and determination to rebuild and recover from this tragedy.

cheshire wife said...

There are some incredible stories of bravery in that post.

Susie of Arabia said...

Truly incredible and touching stories of bravery and the indefatigable human spirit. You Australians are showing the world what you're made of - and it's all good!