Today is the 20th anniversary of the Newcastle earthquake. Being a proud Novocastrian, I was in Newie on that fateful day and can remember it vividly. Our family always had Christmas holidays in Forster, so it was unusual for us to be at home in late December, but for some reason that year we came back to Newcastle for a few days around Christmas. Perhaps it was because my sister was visiting from the US, where she was living at the time.
Just before 10:30 on that morning I was lying on my bed, probably reading a book or listening to music. It began as a very subtle shaking, so slight that for a second or two I thought it was just our old washing machine jumping up and down. But as it grew more violent I realised this was something else entirely. I stood up and went to the kitchen, where mum was standing. My sister had come out of the loungeroom and for a second or two we stood looking at each other as the house shook and things started falling off shelves. Our old house was a wooden frame weatherboard place, built in the early ’50s. For those few seconds it felt like being inside a shoebox that was being twisted back and forth. It’s amazing that there wasn’t severe structural damage – I guess they don’t make ‘em like they used to!
In maybe ten seconds it was over. I think one of us said the word “earthquake”, which is what I’m sure we were all thinking. But an earthquake in Newcastle? We all went out the front and looked up and down the street, most of our neighbours had the same idea. Across the road a car had stopped and its driver was crouched on the road, looking underneath, wondering what it was that had caused his car to go haywire. Of course his car was fine, it was the road that was momentarily screwed up.
One of our neighbours was talking about a possible explosion at the BHP steel works. We all looked in that direction for any signs of smoke or fire. But as we went back inside I think we knew that we had just experienced an earthquake.
Of course we didn’t know the extent of the damage at that time. The power had gone out and so we had no television. I had an appointment at 11:00 to get the brakes fixed on my car, so off I drove to the mechanics in Tudor St, Hamilton. Little did I know that this was the area which suffered the most damage. As I drove I passed many houses that hadn’t fared as well as ours. Most people stood in shock, some crying, outside their homes. Fire engines and ambulances roared by, the air filled with the wailing of sirens. When I arrived at the mechanics I found that one entire wall had collapsed, the employees standing around looking at the pile of rubble. Assuming that my appointment was cancelled I turned around and headed home.
Over the next hour we got more news via the radio. We sat in our loungeroom in amazement as we heard of the people killed in Beaumont St, Hamilton, crushed by fallen shop awnings. And then we heard that the Newcastle Workers’ Club – a local institution! – had collapsed and that people were trapped inside. Nine were to die in that one building alone.
In 1998 the telemovie “Aftershocks” – adapted from the play by Paul Brown – told the story of the Newcastle Earthquake. I was played by a young David Wenham.
Here is some old NBN news footage of the disaster (WARNING: This footage contains ’80s fashions):