Two volunteers who helped in the aftermath of Cyclone Tracy, Betty Watchman and Helen Murphy, share their stories 40 years on.

Below are extracts from the personal stories that Helen and Betty shared at Red Cross commemorations for the 40-year anniversary of Cyclone Tracy.

Helen’s story: helping from Katherine

Only those who endured the wrath of Tracy know of the terror and heartbreak.

However I would like to draw attention to the incredible work of so many businesses and townsfolk down the Track, as hundreds of evacuees made their way south to the safety and comfort of families in the southern states.

That journey for so many would have been their first experience of driving through the outback of Australia which, in the mid-1970s, was still a challenge in many areas.  And some of their cars certainly showed signs of the destruction of Darwin.

People 40 years and under would have no concept whatsoever of what it was like at that time as far as LACK of communication – no such luxuries of mobile phones and satellite technology. So the rest of Australia was completely cut off from Darwin on Christmas morning 1974, and the people of Katherine had to learn in a real hurry to take up their role of disaster relief.

As far as my role as the Red Cross Branch President at that time was concerned, our main objects up until that day had been running fundraising cake stalls, raffles and the annual Oktoberfest or Hawaiian Night. So it wasn’t until travellers started to ask if we knew if this person or that person had driven through town, that we realised we needed to start registering the evacuees. We need to relieve the minds of their family and friends in southern states who had no idea of their safety or whereabouts.

At the beginning, with no communications open to south, our registers of names were rushed out to pilots of the planes stopping to refuel at Katherine as they headed south. We requested the envelopes be handed to Australian Red Cross personnel at the pilots’ destinations. Eventually the Telex machine came ‘on line’ and then many more names were sent direct to other Red Cross offices.

Richard Morris, Jim McHours and Bob Kerr took it upon themselves to set up a ‘soup kitchen’ a few miles north of Katherine and as Richard told me, next they knew they were receiving many items to be handed to the cold, wet and hungry travellers. Meanwhile, CWA ladies started to set up at the airport with refreshments and many personal items for the passengers to freshen up before their long journey south. My mum was seconded into helping other Red Cross members making hundreds of sandwiches at the area Sshool for distribution to wherever needed the most. The business owners of Katherine threw their doors open to help in whatever way possible to comfort the travellers, and their generosity should also be acknowledged.

So many stories from Katherine alone – but this story was repeated in all the small towns dotted along the Track (Stuart Highway) to Adelaide or the Barkly Highway to all points on the East Coast. And it needs to be told.

Betty’s story: the first two days in Darwin

Like so many people, I heard on the 7.30am news broadcast that approximately 20 houses had been unroofed during Cyclone Tracy which struck Darwin on Christmas Day.  

It didn’t sound very serious therefore I didn’t listen to any subsequent new broadcasts during the day and I spent the rest of the day in our happy family atmosphere. By fate, a member of my family broke the house rule by turning on the television set, only to hear that Red Cross were engaged in dispatching blankets and other urgent requirements to what was thought to be a devastated city, but nobody really knew. All communications had been cut.

On Christmas evening a phone call was received asking me to report for work very early on Boxing Day. Since the evening news broadcast, things were beginning to ‘hot up’ in Headquarters. The phones were beginning to run constantly; people seeking information as to what had happened and anxious for news of relatives. It was obvious that extra staff would be needed. A further phone call late at night from Canberra requested a Red Cross team of 20 personnel to be flown immediately to Darwin.

We had to report to Naval Flight Facilities by 7am. 20 Red Cross workers and three press reporters boarded the plane for a journey virtually into the unknown. 100 units of blood and plasma were placed on board ready for immediate delivery to the Darwin hospital. Radio contact was maintained with the naval base for as long as possible and then silence.  It wasn’t until Darwin Airport came into view that it was possible to make contact with the ground. The control tower had been rendered useless and the talk-down was from an army truck situated on the edge of the airfield.

Debris lay scattered around the airfield, but it wasn’t until we reached the Operations building that we became aware of the excessive damage. A very large uprooted tree lay resting against the side of the building. It must have been blown some distance as there was no sign of a hole in the immediate area from where it could have been uprooted. An old war-time bomber had been blown along like a piece of paper, coming to rest in an unusual position. Dozens of light aircraft lay upside down or completely crumpled.

People appeared stunned, some with suitcases, others with their salvaged belongings wrapped in blankets. They sat waiting until their names were called for boarding planes. There was no panic and I doubt if there had been any. Shock, accompanied by disbelief that such a catastrophe could have happened, anaesthetised people into being patient and subdued.

Within an hour of arriving at Red Cross House in Darwin, we were able to start treating the overflow of casualties from the Darwin hospital on the opposite side of the road. The only medical equipment immediately available was my own first aid bag and the equipment we salvaged from the Blood Bank. However, the RAAF gave a variety of requisites and more were eventually procured from the hospital. The majority of injuries were caused by flying iron sheeting, glass and nails.

Our team of 20 joined the four members from the Western Australian Division who had arrived a few hours earlier. Everyone seemed to find their own niche. One member of the team took charge of the cooking and cooked almost non-stop for two days. Men were deployed at the road blocks with the police – this was on a 24-hour roster basis – whilst in camp there was wood to be chopped, water to be boiled for drinking purposes and repairs carried out to the building to make it waterproof.

The first night we were rostered two hours rest.  The interior of the building was far too wet to stay in, so the majority of the team slept or rather lay on the concrete surrounding the building. It was the strangest experience of my life. Everything appeared dead – the trees had been completely stripped of leaves; there were no birds or insects.

On the morning of the second day, our pattern of involvement became clear. We were to be the clearing station for walking or sitting patients coming from the hospital. The massive influx came when the obstetric ward was emptied. Day-old babies, post-natal cases and pre-natal cases – four babies came straight from humi-cribs; they were wrapped in foil and then in bunny rugs.

With the exception of those who were returned to hospital all who came to us were evacuated by five o’clock that day… then we started all over again.

Meanwhile, back in Sydney, staff members were assisted from Boxing Day until the 9th January by 2,700 volunteers. Several staff members worked non-stop for 72 hours. Volunteers who were asked to go home and rest worked round the clock. People were needed to answer the phones non-stop – 35,000 people left Darwin, and their loved ones needed to know where were they? 24 hours a day the enquiries poured in, mainly from Australia during the daytime and from numerous countries around the world at night.