Being a teenage Newcastle boy on TAFE holidays meant that on 28 December 1989, at 10:27 am, I was in bed, fast asleep. But not for very much longer…
It was around that moment that I awoke, with the full intention of telling my brother-in-law that “yes, yes, I’m getting up” – as I assumed it was him shaking my bed so that I could help him chop firewood, paint a fence or build a retaining wall.
Imagine my surprise when I awoke to find no-one there, just the house being shaken about by some unknown force. Things were falling off shelves, drawers were opening, and the walls looked strangely rubbery.
I ran out the front door, and was confronted with the site of everyone else in the street also exiting with much haste into their front yards.
“There’s been an explosion in one of the mines” incorrectly yelled out a neighbour. It’s amazing how people can quickly give definitive conclusions based on a total absence of facts.
At that point it seemed like things had settled down slightly, so I walked back in and picked up the phone to call my sister. No dial tone. Just a thousand other voices crackling “Hello… hello?” repeatedly into the earpiece.
As the day went on, stories from other family members came rolling in. My mother had been driving through Elermore Vale and pulled over when she saw a lady come screaming out of her house, arms flailing. My brother was showering and thought his kids had done something naughty with explosives to cause the house to start to collapse in on itself. My brother-in-law was a bus driver on strike action, but ended up ferrying passengers out of the city all day – he recalls driving his bus over a bridge in Carrington, which collapsed a short time later.
Never letting the facts get in the way of a good story – a prominent Sydney newspaper had reported that the “death toll” had been around 100.
We all quivered with nervous excitement when we heard that the army had marched into the city and that looters would be “shot on sight”.
Several evenings later I was minding my 8 year old nephew and we were sitting quietly in the loungeroom when the back door made a “Vroom” sound and the house gave a minor shake. My nephew and I looked at each other with the kind of fear you would expect if the Blair Witch had knocked on your door. In fact, when I think back to that “aftershock” moment, the scene has that same kind of eerie 8mm film feel to it.
In the weeks that followed, the great insurance hoo-hah began. People were bragging about winning the “earthquake lottery” by putting in exorbitant damages claims and pocketing the excess cash. A rock concert was put on in aid of those who were underinsured, consequently causing Today Tonight / A Current Affair viewers everywhere to complain that those who did the right thing by having insurance were somehow being gypped by those who were not insured.
Just like something out of a Simpsons episode, people started selling t‑shirts with such tasteful sayings as “5.5 and still alive”.
Obviously for friends and family of the 13 victims, this day will not be remembered in quite the same way as it was for many of us.
A couple of years later I found myself on the “earthquake simulator” at Questacon in Canberra, in some kind of attempt to relive the surreal feeling of waking up during an earthquake in Australia of all places. The simulator wasn’t bad actually – brought on a Goosebump or two.
And yes, experiencing the Newcastle Earthquake in all its glory takes some of the sting out of missing the Pasha Bulker.
Check out the following video… it contains at least one of my family members, and a very stunned union official…