EVERYBODY seems to have a Newcastle earthquake story.
It might be a tragic one, or it might be a semi-comic yarn. Many are unusual, all are unique. It might involve a Newcastle jockey in panic, running from a steam room almost starkers during the day the earth shook at 5.6 on the Richter scale, rocking homes, schools and businesses, creating damage costing $4.3 billion.
Or it might concern a Cooks Hill resident arriving home to discover his piano had almost disappeared down a giant hole in his lounge room.
Or, more likely, it'll be a harrowing tale concerning sites where 13 people were suddenly killed mid morning on December 28, 1989: mainly at the collapsed Newcastle Workers Club, or on Hamilton's Beaumont Street. The Newcastle earthquake affected 300,000 people directly, with widespread damage to 3000 buildings, 300 of which had to be demolished, leaving 1000 people homeless.
Incredibly, the earthquake had lasted just six seconds, but will be remembered forever. Shocked residents at first thought an aeroplane had crashed, or maybe an underground mine had collapsed, or there had been an explosion at BHP.
The Earthquake Then & Now exhibition at Newcastle Museum earlier this year featured a gallery of 25 portraits of people from all walks of life holding photographs of themselves during the emergency.
One of them was now retired paramedic Alan Playford who was aged 39 years that fateful day.
As later reported in the Herald, his mood was one of initial confusion and shock. He had a day off and felt the earthquake, but thought it was a truck accident before his pager sounded. He started at Beaumont Street, but then all Newcastle paramedics were urgently needed instead at the Workers Club, where nine people died.
"The building looked like a pack of collapsed cards. It was a maze of concrete, dust, steel rods and pokie machines," Playford said. "We had to search that dark hell for survivors. There were voices in a three-metre deep cavity.
"I was lowered down with a fire hose because we had no ropes. We got the people out . . . while the dust fell and [concrete] reo rods twanged. It was so dusty that it was hard to tell people from rubble.
"I became mates with [survivor] Norm Duffy. He was a great guy and really kept all the ladies' spirits up of those trapped in the club with him.
"[Later] I think the revitalisation of the city could have moved faster, but the spirit of this city never died," Playford remembered.
Newcastle Museum deputy director Julie Baird said reaction to the display had been "overwhelming and very positive", sparking multiple national press stories.
"Hundreds of people have left their own earthquake stories on our comment wall. It has been so moving," she said. "The exhibition's opening last month brought many people back together for the first time since the earthquake, and performances of the play Aftershocks here brought record crowds."
One unexpected story of the 1989 drama came when Newcastle suburbs post-earthquake formed a dramatic, half-fictional backdrop for crime writer Peter Corris' 14th novel, Aftershock, in 1991.
In it, shabby private eye Cliff Hardy visits a cottage in Ocean Street, Dudley, while investigating a mystery death.
In reality, it was Corris' own weekender, and he was there when the 1989 earthquake struck.
"I thought a tree had fallen on the house," Corris later told the Herald.
Everything was soon closed down. Later, driving around Hamilton the city made an indelible impression on him, so the next time he began to write a Hardy novel, he was compelled to set it in Newcastle.
Fact, as they say, is stranger than fiction.
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