THE earthquake which struck Newcastle on December 28, 1989, was one of the biggest stories the Newcastle Herald has covered.
It measured 5.6 on the Richter scale and killed 13 people, causing widespread damage.
Despite considerable difficulties, since the newspaper’s own building was damaged and access from the press to the roadway was difficult, the Herald produced a bumper earthquake edition, lifting its print-run to cater for the expected increased demand.
So insatiable was the region’s thirst for detailed information on the disaster, however, that the paper sold out rapidly and it was decided to reprint the entire edition and distribute it with the next day’s equally comprehensive paper.
It sold out again.
In thousands of drawers and bureaus around the Hunter copies of that famous earthquake edition still lie, picked up occasionally when people gather and reminisce about the disaster.
I was a young reporter at the time, well into my fifth year at the Herald and doing my best to learn my trade. On the day of the quake I clearly remember driving to work, listening to a language tuition tape on my cassette player. Entering the King Street carpark as usual I felt my car give a kind of lurch and made a mental note to have the steering seen to by a good mechanic.
It was 10.27am.
I parked and got out, noticing some broken glass and rubble on the footpath outside the building across the road. People were spilling out of buildings and there was a dazed buzz in the air.
Walking to the Bolton Street intersection I saw people sitting in cars, some with doors open, listening intently to their radios. As I entered Bolton Street I could see that building damage was widespread.
“What happened?” I asked somebody. “I think there’s been a coalmine explosion,” they answered. “The radio says there’s been an earthquake in Sydney,” said a bloke sitting in a car.
Bloody hell, I thought, if it’s damaged buildings in Newcastle then I’d hate to see what it’s done in Sydney. Next thing I knew, the Herald’s then chief of staff, Mark Riley, ran out of the Herald building clutching an armful of notebooks. He thrust one at me, pointed his finger nowhere in particular and said: “Go!”
I noticed then that the sound of sirens had begun to fill the air. From then on they hardly stopped all day.
The rumours were incredible. Charlestown Square had collapsed, somebody said. Big trouble in Hamilton, said somebody else. Another person had heard there were people killed in Newcastle Workers Club.
The Herald building was evacuated. Power was gone and everybody was nervous and scared of the aftershocks which now began to dominate our thinking.
We reporters grabbed notebooks and fled in all directions, looking for the story that was all around us.
I went to Royal Newcastle Hospital, just across the road, and found people pouring from its doors like ants from a kicked nest.
Around on the ocean side, beds and stretchers were filling up the park opposite the hospital and the stream of evacuees was competing with bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Esplanade. For the first time I was forced to confront a conflict between my reporting job and an obvious helping role I could fill. On the spur of the moment I appointed myself chief traffic warden, stopping the cars at intervals to help the hospital evacuation continue smoothly.
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Later in the day I went to the Mater Hospital and found the same story: patients on the grass and health workers improvising to make sure nobody’s condition was compromised.
With a photographer I drove around the streets of Mayfield and Hamilton, taking pictures of shattered buildings. Finally, I was sent to the workers club to take my turn among those waiting for survivors or bodies to be brought from the rubble.
All the while at the back of my mind was concern about my wife and parents. In those days hardly anybody had mobile phones and the quake had isolated the city from a lot of outside communication. I’ve a strong memory of returning to the office – now declared safe for journalists to re-enter – and being called out to by the switchboard operator as I strode past on my way up the stairs. “Your father called and everybody is all right,” she told me, lifting a weight from my shoulders and freeing my mind to concentrate on the writing I had ahead.
All of us had a long, chaotic evening, striving to distil some clarity from a highly confused picture.
The authorities moved quickly to cordon off the city centre, putting soldiers at roadblocks and checkpoints on the roads in.
Before I drove home that night I stood beside a young soldier at one checkpoint and saw the wisdom of the roadblocks. As far as the eye could see were lines of headlights of cars trying to enter the city. The vast majority were sightseers or worse. Utes, vans and cars with trailers seemed to predominate and I’m sure if the army hadn’t been there the looting from damaged buildings would have been much worse than it was.
In the days and weeks that followed the quake continued to dominate the pages of the Herald.
Who had been killed and how? Who had been injured?
What were the insurance companies planning to do?
Who was in charge of the massive push to demolish damaged older buildings? Would it happen again? If so, when? How did it happen anyway? The questions and angles seemed to have no end.
The crisis produced its heroes. Norm Duffy emerged as the face of courage in the shattered workers club. Badly injured and trapped in the frightening darkness of the buried poker machine floor, Norm cracked jokes and kept failing spirits alive.
Rescue workers, frustrated by false alarms about aftershocks and hampered by uncertainty about their own safety in the disaster zone, performed as always with bravery and dedication.
The city was humbled and moved by the huge outpouring of concern from all over Australia. Donations flooded into the Lord Mayor’s Earthquake Appeal, ensuring nobody was forced to suffer unfair losses because of under-insurance.
For weeks the city remained closed off and we Herald workers had to park at Bar Beach and catch a shuttle bus to work. So many buildings were damaged that we stopped seeing the cracks.
The earthquake was a huge story that carried us all in its wave. It was one of the times in my journalistic career when I had absolutely no doubt about the value of the product we all worked every day to create.
In the crisis, when the public was desperately hungry for every scrap of information, when detail and in-depth analysis was at a premium, the Herald was without parallel.
It’s worth noting that, among the many things we learned about the quake, was that such events are relatively common in Newcastle, and we can expect a similar one, on average, every 70 years or so.
Newcastle Museum will host Earthquake Then And Now, a photographic commemoration of the quake, until February 9, and performances of the play Aftershocks on December 28 and 29. Christ Church Cathedral will hold an anniversary service at 3pm on December 28.
■ Cecil Robert Abbott, 59, of Hamilton, killed by a falling awning as he stopped for a chat outside the Kent Hotel.
■ Albert Gavin Bender, 75, of Merewether, killed in the rubble of the Newcastle Workers Club.
■ Dulcie Alice Bliim, 78, of Hamilton, killed under a collapsed wall in Beaumont Street while shopping for a dress.
■ Carol Ann Coxhell, 49, of Adamstown Heights, killed while filling poker machines at Newcastle Workers Club.
■ Miriam Coleen Duffy, 62, of Whitebridge, killed in the collapse of Newcastle Workers Club.
■ Cyril Keith McMahon, 62, of Hamilton, killed under a collapsing wall in Beaumont Street, Hamilton.
■ Verlina Maree March, 53, of Carrington, killed while playing poker machines at Newcastle Workers Club.
■ Leonard Charles Norris, 60, of Newcastle, killed in the basement of the workers club where he was visiting a friend.
■ Barry Francis Spark, 60, of Mayfield, killed in the basement maintenace room at the workers club.
■ Peggy Theresa Stone, 75, of Thornton, killed at the workers club where she had gone for her weekly hoy game.
■ Eileen Mary Werren, 69, of Mayfield West, killed at the workers club where she had gone to renew her membership.
■ John Anthony O’Shanassy, 30, of Sydney, a rock band roadie killed setting up for a Split Enz concert at the workers club that night.
■ Levener Georgia Watson, 63, of Blackalls Park, who died next day of a brain haemorrhage brought on by the stress of the earthquake.
■ It struck at 10.27am, Thursday, December 28, 1989, lasted six seconds.
■ Epicentre at Boolaroo, 11.5km underground.
■ First measured at 5.5 on the Richter scale, revised to 5.6.
■ Felt over 200,000sqkm, damaged 35,000 homes, 147 schools, 3000 buildings; cost $4.3billion.
■ 13 people were killed, 160 hospitalised. Nine died in collapsed Newcastle Workers Club, three in Hamilton’s Beaumont Street (pictured on Page 1), one the next day of a brain haermorrhage brought on by stress.
■ 1000 SES volunteers involved.
■ 300 buildings demolished, 300,000 people affected,
■ 1000 left homeless.
■ People thought the tremor was an underground mine collapse, a car crash nearby, a plane crash, a gas explosion, an explosion at BHP.
■ Two aftershocks recorded: 7.08pm, December 29, (registering 2.7), 11.43pm on February 27, (2.5). Neither caused damage.
■ Lord Mayor’s Earthquake Appeal Fund set up for donations. It became the Newcastle Region Disaster Relief Fund.
■ Newcastle Citizens Earthquake Action Group formed to fight to preserve city landmarks.
■ Newcastle Earthquake Benefit Concert held at International Sports Centre on February 18, 1990, attended by 42,000, including 15,000 from Sydney. Raised $900,000 for Lord Mayor’s Earthquake Appeal Fund.
■ Newcastle Workers Club rebuilt on same site, costing $20million. Opened by Prime Minister Paul Keating, July 3, 1992.
■ Other big quakes in the region: October 28, 1842 (5.3); June 18, 1968 (5.3); December 18, 1925 (5.3); August 6, 1994 (5.4). Most recent quake in the region was September 23 this year at Kearsley (3.1).
What are your memories of the earthquake? Share at theherald.com.au