WE'RE living now with bushfire after bushfire, but the closing months of 1989 also had more than their share of disaster.
The Newcastle earthquake of Thursday, December 28, 1989, was the biggest tragedy in terms of impact, and its injury toll, at more than 160, was certainly the highest.
But the loss of 12 lives on the day, and a hospital patient whose death the next day was later acknowledged as quake-related, was by no means the worst.
History: The Newcastle earthquake 30 years on
On Friday, October 20, a laden semi-trailer veered to the wrong side of the highway near Grafton, and sheared head-on into an interstate coach, killing 21 people and injuring 22, making it the nation's worst road accident by death toll. Incredibly, though, a near-repeat accident happened north of Kempsey just six days before the quake, when two interstate coaches collided head-on, killing 35 people and injuring 41.
That carnage still holds the record it inherited from the Grafton crash, and the twin tragedies forced the NSW and federal governments to build the modern, dual-carriageway Pacific Highway through northern NSW that we know today.
On top of the bus crashes, a Newcastle-built Tangara train partly derailed near Wentworthville station in Sydney's west, a day before the quake, killing a passenger in the wrecked final carriage,
It was little wonder, then, that state coroner Kevin Waller described the recent toll of trouble as "endless" when he arrived in Newcastle to inspect the shattered city.
"Yet another disaster, I'm soaking up the punishment," Waller said to reporters outside Newcastle Workers Club the day after the earthquake.
"At the moment in NSW it just seems like one disaster after another. This one is even more astonishing, I think, than the others."
And "astonishing" is an appropriate way to describe the Newcastle earthquake.
The earthquake was a brutal blow, individually and collectively, but Newcastle's powerful community bonds will cope with its effectsNewcastle Herald editorial, the morning after the quake
Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, an otherwise sleepy post-Christmas city and its suburban surrounds were thrown into chaos as buildings began to shake and roll - and break - as a massive burst of energy rippled out from the quake's centre, which sat along a fault line about 11.5 kilometres underground near Boolaroo.
Although houses and other buildings were damaged in outlying areas, the bulk of the destruction was in the Newcastle CBD and Hamilton, where most of the streets sit on sandy flats and drained swamps that had been the mouth of the Hunter River in prehistoric times.
Some guessed it was an earthquake straight away, but others thought it was a bomb, or a train accident, a major mine subsidence or an explosion at the BHP steelworks, which quickly vented its line of coke ovens, the massive plumes of flame and smoke visible from kilometres away.
On Beaumont Street, parapets atop many of the terrace-style shops broke away, sending tonnes of bricks tumbling down onto awnings whose tie-rod anchors soon gave way under the weight, trapping and crushing people under the debris.
Most of those awnings had been originally supported by posts, removed in the 1920s as transport moved from horses to cars.
Two people died under the debris, a third died that day in hospital, and at least 20 others were taken to hospital, often after being helped out of the rubble by passers-by.
At the workers club, where Wests City stands now on the corner of King Street and Union Street, the western side of the club collapsed, killing nine people and sending another 20 or more to hospital.
Against the tragic loss of life, tales of lucky escapes were everywhere. Fears the first night that up to 10 more people might be still be trapped proved thankfully wrong. The old eastern side of the club suffered little damage. The section that collapsed, weakened by a design fault, was just 17 years old.
Views of the devastated club, looking into the tangled mess of cars and angled slabs and rubble from the footpath and median strip in King Street, have become emblematic images of an unbelievable day in Hunter history.
While the workers club, the Kent Hotel and a Soul Pattinson chemist in Beaumont Street were the only fatal accident sites, buildings in virtually every street of the city and the inner suburbs were damaged with the force of the tremor, initially measured as 5.5 on the Richter scale, and later re-rated to 5.6.
The total was later calculated at 12,000 buildings in Newcastle and Lake Macquarie, with half of the CBD and 80 per cent of Beaumont Street and surrounds damaged. Sporadic damage, most of it minimal, was caused further out, in the Coalfields.
By year's end, at least 167 buildings had been demolished, with an initial damage bill in Newcastle of $1.1 million, and eventual overall costs of the quake put at $4 billion.
At the time, it was obvious to everyone involved that the human impact could have been so much worse than it was. Not only were classrooms empty at holiday time - Tighes Hill technical college and five inner city schools alone suffered $30 million worth of damage - but most businesses in town were on skeleton staff during the Christmas to New Year break.
If the quake had come 12 hours later, up to 1800 punters would have been at the workers club for a show by Crowded House, Split Enz and Boom Crash Opera. One roadie setting up the stage was killed and the auditorium ceiling had hit the floor. The impact had the room been full is unthinkable.
The numbers of shoppers in town were also down on what they could have been because the government buses were off the road for a stop-work meeting at Hamilton. A TV interview was under way when the quake struck, capturing the impact - and the startled "holy f . ." reaction of union official Don Williams - for posterity.
The bus drivers quickly returned to work, running shuttles to empty the city of shoppers and workers as the rescue crews, the army and the SES moved in.
Despite the utterly unprecedented scenes across the city in those first few hours after the quake, few if any reports of trouble emerged, with the army and police working quickly to set up road block barricades in Hamilton and across the roads running into the city, and around those buildings that had fallen or were likely to. As rescue work gave way to demolition at the club, giant machines worked around the clock to flatten and empty the site, cars held in the pincer arms of giant excavators like matchbox toys.
In much the same way that the days after the quake often merged into a blur for those involved, so some images of post-quake demolition have become mislabelled as quake damage.
After the shaking stopped, buildings including the Newcastle RSL, the George Hotel and the adjacent Carrington Chambers looked almost fully intact from outside, despite the damage within. Cranes began pushing in the walls of the RSL just four hours after the quake.
The George and Carrington stayed up for nine days until the first Saturday in January, with the wrecking ball proceeding despite a late-night court injunction and a sizeable contingent of onlookers and protesters. Mention of the George can still raise passions today.
John McNaughton, who used his position as lord mayor to very publicly lead the recovery effort in its first phase, says various engineers had condemned the buildings, which had to come down to allow the CBD to reopen as quickly as it did.
Other demolitions were obvious, such as the lopsided Junction Motor Inn and the art deco former Century Theatre - home to a Christian Revival Centre - at the Nine Ways, Broadmeadow.
In the end, it took years for the visual impacts of the quake to disappear, but for those who lived through it, the memories are never too far from the surface. The dangers of coalmining and steelmaking had long toughened the Hunter to adversity, but the quake started the trend in visiting politicians to sympathise with Novocastrians for "doing it tough". And for a fair while after December 28, 1989, that was pretty much the truth.
- This story is part of a series by journalist, Ian Kirkwood, marking 30 years since the Newcastle earthquake. On Monday, the Herald will publish Part II: The Newcastle Workers Club
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