This story has never felt like mine to tell. And it isn’t. I wasn’t there, and I was lucky I wasn’t there. Nobody can ever prepare you for moments in life where you have a lucky escape, it wasn’t even a near miss. I left The Palace Hostel on 1 June 2000, and on the 23 June 2000 it burnt to the ground. However, it was close enough that I sometimes feel guilty that as a result of me moving out, it caused a room shuffle that caused some people to live and some people to die.
There are nervous moments that play in my mind that I still carry guilt about. Nobody ever tells you about that. Every year when it hits June, every single year since 2000 my mind thinks of 15 young people who died that night. I still feel angry that the perpetrator was so evil, full of so much hatred for backpackers that he intentionally meant to hurt people that night. The worst is that he meant to kill every single person in that hostel. We were lucky it was only 15, but that completely underplays the extent that 15 people aged 18 – 48 were murdered in a few hours. 15 lives, all individually beautiful in their own way. They are not just a number – which was so eloquently put by James in his podcast (link to the podcast is below).
It never left me, and in my eyes I was a ripple. I wasn’t even directly impacted and I can never imagine the magnitude of that event on the survivors, their families and the victims families. The waves and ripples of people effected were huge.
When you set off on an adventure of a lifetime, you go for many reasons. Mine was to find myself. Cheesey as it sounds, I wanted to push myself outside of my comfort zone and know what I was supposed to be. Nobody prepares you for the friendships you make. I left on my own at 20 years old with just a backpack, a camera, a video camera and my CD walkman. I made friendships that I have maintained over the last 20 years.
I met Pamela and Angela in a hostel in Sydney, Pamela was from Edinburgh and Angela was from Aberdeen. They had met in college and they were travelling around the world. We were all on the working holiday visa in Australia and ended up moving into the same room. They invited me to join their travels up the East Coast. It was while we were in Brisbane we heard an announcement that a farm in Childers was looking for workers, we were running low on funds so we went to the job shop and signed up.
We caught the McCafferty’s coach up to Childers and arrived late at night. Childers is a small town in North Queensland. We worked in Childers for a month, we worked together all day, then we would go to the pub with each other, sit and chat about home and our lives. I found two guys at the hostel – Gary and Mike – they were from the South West (Bristol and Bath), so we bonded. They had worked at the casino in Bristol and they taught me various card games. We said that we would make contact when we got home. Weirdly they’re the only email addresses I didn’t capture, I have no idea why, when we had the intent to catch up when we got home. On the 23 June 2000 they both lost their lives in that fire.
I would sit on many nights out on the balcony with Pamela and Angela. We would be joined by Keith, Caroline, Dave and Nik. We would chat, laugh and joke about the hardwork. One night we even laughed at how pathetic the smoke alarms were. We were so young and naive, probably thinking we were so invincible that it didn’t cross our minds that it was probably something we should raise with the hostel owners.
I worked with James, Martin and Lisa – who were all from the south of England. So we southerners had plenty of banter. James also played hockey, we bonded over hockey tales and Caroline (who also worked on our team) would often make up various songs about tomato picking. Our favourite was ‘Tomato Queen’ to the tune of ‘Dancing Queen’. We’d also decide whether the day was a rotten tomato or a green tomato day. Essentially if it was a rotten tomato day then you could at any moment be pelted with a rotten tomato as you walked. If it was a green tomato day, then a green tomato could smack you in the backside at any moment. Not only did you have to be on your guard to find the tomatoes in the bushes, but you also needed eyes in the back of your head to prevent yourself from being ambushed. Trust me, the rotten tomato days soon subsided when we realised how pungent they were and how hard the smell was to get out of your clothes.
It was hard work, really bloody hard work. We were up at 4am, you’d start the day in jumpers and by midday the glorious Queensland winter sunshine was out and you were in your singlets. We stopped a couple of times a day for ‘smokos’ – for those of us that didn’t smoke, it was just snack time. There were no toilets on the tomato farm, so we had to go into the nearby sugar cane to relieve ourselves – I stopped using sugar that year!
Your body ached, and we were physically exhausted when we got home. We were only in our twenties at the time, so I know now at 40 I would find it doubly as hard! We had to make our time there fun, and I think that is why we formed such lovely friendships.
We were only supposed to be in Childers for a couple of weeks. I nagged Pamela and Angela that we needed more money, so it extended out to a month. It got to a point in week three that they really wanted to leave – it was hardworking on the farms, and they wanted to keep on with our travels. I thought we should stay longer to make sure our funds were really topped up. Luckily I lost that argument.
On the night of the 23 June, I was on a bus travelling back to Darwin from Jim Jim Falls. It was a three hour journey. I remember there being some controlled Aboriginal bush fires that we could see out of the window as we were driving. I had been chatting to a girl called Suzie, she went to university with Martin and Lisa. So I was chatting to her about how I met them in Childers, and we were saying what a small world it was.
I was eerily staring out of the window into the darkness with the flickering of the flames in the bush in the distance. I was half asleep, when I heard faintly on the radio of the bus: ‘…Palace Backpackers, Childers. Police do not know what caused the fire but they suspect arson which will lead to a conviction of mass murder.’ I was awake. I walked up to the front of the bus, I sat on the edge of the three seater at the front next to fellow travellers who were asleep and I asked our tour guide to turn up the radio.
Suzie had also woken up, she had seen the panic in my face and she came down to the front of the bus. She hadn’t even heard the announcement, and looking back it is weird that she just knew from the look in my face.The volume was up now and she could hear the news, a few people had woken up on the bus and there were mutters of what was happening. She said to me ‘it’s Childers isn’t it. Was that the backpackers they were staying in?’ I nodded my head and she put her hands over her mouth. I was numb. They weren’t reporting on if anyone had been hurt, but the fact they had mentioned mass murder I knew some people were not ok.
I willed the bus to go faster. When we pulled up outside the hostel everyone let me run in first closely followed by Suzie. I asked at reception for them to put on the TV and to put on the news as I needed to know about the fire. The guy really coldly said 18 people were missing. I burst into tears and a wave of emotion washed over me.
These were the days before smart phones. You were lucky if you had a mobile phone while travelling. It was all pay phones and internet cafes. There was no Facebook, we relied on emails to keep in touch and internet speeds were atrocious.
I ran over the road with Suzie and we called the Childers Motel across the road from the Palace. They answered and explained they could not give me any information, they gave me the helpline number and said that they hoped my friends were ok. The helpline was engaged, so I called Pamela and Angela. They had managed to get through to the helpline – they explained that Martin, Lisa, Keith and James were all accounted for (Caroline, Dave and Nik had left a week or two before – Nik I had weirdly bumped into in Darwin so I knew he was ok). Gary and Mike had yet to be found.
The next few days of my diary are filled with the unknown. I remember hearing that the perpetrator was also missing. My gut screamed that he had done it. He was a vindictive man who often talked about his hatred of backpackers – but we were ok (we was Pamela, Angela and I). He was a compulsive liar and devoid of empathy of any sort. Now I am older and wiser, I know that I was getting all the signs of a complete and utter psychopath. I often have guilt on whether we could have persuaded him that if he took the time to get to know other backpackers then he would discover they were all like us, just decent human beings working and travelling around Australia before settling down to start our careers/‘real life’. Could we have stopped him? The warning signs were there – could we have done more?
My diary is full of worrying about what possessions everyone had got out of the fire, if they had their passports, if they were ok and the fact they didn’t have their families for support. It’s full of hope that we’ll eventually get news that maybe Gary and Mike had moved and not told anyone. I talk about wishing I had enough money to get a bus and be there with them and the guilt I had that I was in Kakadu National Park, just continuing on my travels – was that even fair?
It was around the 27 June that reports came out that confirmed the perpetrator had caused the fire. It was the 28 June that they caught him. He attacked a police officer in the process of being caught, to the extent they shot him twice and a police dog attacked him. I have no doubt he had no remorse, just the fear of being caught.
Pamela, Angela and I received emails over the next few weeks from various survivors telling us their stories. We caught up with Keith in Perth, he was still struggling with the aftermath of the fire. His pain and distress I can remember to this day. I was so pleased he was lucky to escape, but I had not thought about the trauma that would live on after. I had some understanding, but this was long before we talked about things like PTSD.
I caught up with James a couple of years ago to meet his wife Mino. They were in Australia, James had met Mino during the press conferences after the fire. They were both in the hostel the night of the fire, but only met in the aftermath. I could tell that even after all this time, that fire had left an imprint on both of them.
Every year in June I think of that fire. This year it has been on my mind more than usual because the man that tried to kill a hostel full of young people could be released. A decision will be made on his parole in 120 days. He can not be let out. He was only charged for 2 murders. He killed 15 people.
He had the chance to reconsider his actions, to really think about the callous act he was about to do. Neil Griffith, who was staying in the hostel found a bin on fire and extinguished it before going to bed. He saw Rob, Rob could have then thought – gosh I could have really caused a lot of damage then. He knew the fire alarms didn’t work. He had also blocked exits of the building. Neil went back to bed, Rob re-lit the fires in those bins and the rest is history. A cold callous act.
There is a petition to prevent his release. Please sign it – for all the families that have lost their child, their sibling – for all the survivors that still live with the trauma from that night.
As I’ve mentioned a few times, I refuse to name the perpetrator as it’s not him we should remember. It’s the names of the 15 young people who did not get to go on and live out the rest of their lives:
– Twins Stacey Louise and Kelly June Slarke, 22, Australia
– Sarah Anne Williams, 23, England
– Michael Ernest Lewis, 25, England
– Clare Louise Webb, 24, England
– Natalie Morris, 18, England
– Gary John Sutton, 24, England
– Melissa Jane Smith, 26, England
– Adam John Rowland, 19, England
– Joly Van Der Velden, 23, Holland
– Sebastian Westerveld, 22, Holland
– Atsuski Toyona, 31, Japan
– Julie O’Keefe, 24, Ireland
– Hui-Kyong Lee, 23, Korea
– Moulay Lahcen Lalaoui-Kamal, 48, Morocco
You can hear more about the survivors and the victims in this amazing podcast, that tells the story from that night and of the wonderful Childers community that became the family for so many survivors. These are the things that should be remembered: