“I didn’t leave the news booth”: Black Saturday Remembered
The 2009 Black Saturday bushfires have left a deep emotional scar across the psyche of Victoria. The sheer immensity of the loss has become the bushfire benchmark by which we try to grapple with tragedy.
173 people perished in the bushfires that raged across Victoria, destroying whole communities around Marysville and Kinglake. Hundreds more were injured as they escaped the fires.
While Victorians struggled to make sense of the tragedy, the media captured the devastation through images, sound and the written word.
Ten years after the event, Radio Today speaks with some of those who covered the horror of February 7 2009.
“I recall the sky was an apocalyptic shade of orange and the streets were eerily still, even in the CBD. It was as though we were bracing for what seemed to be an inevitable emergency.
But of course, it was far worse than any of us could have ever imagined.
I remember the eyewitness accounts of “it was raining fire” and the white crosses at the end of driveways, signifying the loss of life that seemed more attuned to medieval times, not modern day Victoria.
I had to push aside the feeling of becoming overwhelmed by the rising death toll, as we were presenting news updates every quarter hour.”
– Patrina Jones: GOLD 104.3 Newsreader – The Christian O’Connell Breakfast Show
The ‘orange sky’ is a memory shared by many others on that hot, dry Saturday.
“I was working as a casual weekend journalist at Nova and Vega FM in Melbourne when the Black Saturday fires broke out.
The sense of anxiety was palpable. People were on the verge of panic, as it immediately brought to mind flashbacks of the devastation caused by the Ash Wednesday fires.
The intensity of the heat, the wind – the eerie, eerie colour of the sky – is etched in my memory forever.
I still remember the shock I felt on hearing Brian Naylor – one of the greatest TV newsreaders of our time – had perished with his wife at their Kinglake property during the fires.”
– Sarah Patterson: ARN & Air News presenter, Foodbytes Podcaster
The death of Brian Naylor rocked many Melburnians, especially those who knew the legend of news and knew him as the trusted face of Nine News.
“Having worked on many days of extreme heat, I was already bracing for a busy day as I drove to work (3AW) for my shift. The first couple of hours were exactly that. Typical of any hot day.
On air with me was Tom Elliott who, back then, presented the weekend afternoons. He was presenting an outside broadcast from Yarra Glen. As the afternoon rolled on, the calls to both Tom’s program and the newsroom indicated we were facing a very serious situation.
In the hours that followed, I didn’t leave the news booth. I was handed script after script for updates, each with another community affected, as I learned the enormity of the situation with the rest of Victoria. Every script read, “unconfirmed deaths”.
Later that evening I took a brief break from reading updates and answered a call to the newsroom. It was Derryn Hinch. He said, “Brian Naylor is dead. Not confirmed yet but that’s what I believe.”
From a sheltered newsroom, it is often easy to lose perspective of the hell that is unfolding in a place that seems a long way from you. But as I broke the news of Brian to colleagues, the tragedy became a reality.”
– Eleanor Quirk: NOVA Entertainment & Network Ten
The enormity of the tragedy was felt elsewhere around the country as Black Saturday emerged as Australia’s worst natural disaster.
“It just became surreal as the extent of the devastation worsened hour-by-hour. Every update reinforced that this was not just a bushfire emergency. This was an ongoing disaster.
And while it was happening across the border and hundreds of kilometres away, what really brought it home was the death of news presenting icon, Brian Naylor.
Suddenly, a victim that you ‘knew’, even if only as a viewer.”
– Steve Blanda: smooth 95.3 & 91.5
As the firestorm passed and numbness set in, the media was allowed into the disaster zone. What they saw left many in shock.
“I was assigned by 3AW to go to the bush fire areas in the days following Black Saturday – the first stop was the little town of Narbethong. It had been wiped out – as if a bomb had hit.
But even that site didn’t prepare me for what was ahead in the resort town of Marysville. Just imagine those black and white photos of war-torn Europe. Just a few buildings remained. The destruction was sickening.
Kinglake was another town I went into. There were areas taped off by the police. Burned out vehicles with the bodies of victims who tried to escape the horror only to be incinerated.
As I stood next to a police officer, he burst into tears saying “why, why here”.
They were days of horror left etched in my brain. But what I went through as a reporter was nothing compared to the 173 people, who lost their lives on Black Saturday, the hundreds more who were injured and of course the families and friends left to pick up the pieces.”
– Denis O’Kane: 3AW
In the months that followed the tragedy, a Royal Commission was held and questions were asked of the emergency response and the way information was disseminated.
What came out of it was an overhaul of communications, a better rating system of the danger to include ‘catastrophic’ and strict guidelines for the media to follow.
In the ten years since there have been other devastating bushfires, but not of the magnitude of Black Saturday.
Perhaps the legacy of the tragedy is a better preparedness and a better understanding of the danger that Mother Nature can unleash.
Lest We Forget.