WHEN coroner Kevin Waller delivered his inquest findings seven months after the 1989 earthquake, he reflected on all of the people he could have named for "bravery, or special devotion to duty" on that cataclysmic day.
Waller said he could do so "quite easily", but he was concerned that doing so might "cause offence by omitting the names of others who may have worked equally courageously, but anonymously".
"For these reasons I will not formally name individuals, but content myself with congratulating every person from whatever background for the splendid efforts made by them to alleviate the suffering of their fellows injured during the horror of the earthquake.
"Feats of gallantry were numerous, and it is uplifting for the rest of Australia to see how a community like Newcastle can respond to a shocking calamity."
But in the midst of that section of his address, the coroner did single out one person for mention. He was a 62-year-old Whitebridge boilermaker, Norm Duffy, who Waller said had "encouraged and fortified other victims" while being "himself in dire straits".
Duffy had been hailed as a hero by paramedics while he was still lying critically ill in the rubble of the Newcastle Workers Club, doing all he could to maintain the spirits of two women - Maureen Polkinghorne and Nancy Hain - who had been hurled into the basement of the club beside him. All three survived, but Duffy's wife Miriam did not. Duffy himself "died" as he was being stretchered out of the club, before being revived by doctors and paramedics in a "miracle" on the King Street median strip. He would not leave hospital until May.
Inevitably, the paramedics who tended Duffy and others that day also became familiar faces after the quake, with Alan Playford, Mal Martin, Bruce Hounslow and David Higgins pictured with Duffy at his Royal Newcastle Hospital bed on the front page six days after the quake.
Duffy emigrated in 1947 from the original Newcastle, in England's north, and married Miriam not long after that. Like others that December morning, they'd gone to the club to renew memberships. Having paid his dues, Duffy had just found his wife at the five-cent pokies when the building lurched and the floor opened up beneath them.
He blinked to consciousness in darkness, painfully pinned under a mass of concrete, his eyes, nose and mouth full of mortar, his mind taken back to his childhood memories of German bombing raids a quarter of a century before.
"I was only about 12 but after the all-clear you'd assist as much as you could, try to cheer people up," Duffy said.
He and the two women he was comforting had been trapped together for about an hour when he heard voices above him, and he reassured them that rescue was on its way. When he saw a pinprick of light he thought it was the sun. It turned out to be a torch in the hand of Playford the paramedic.
Nearby, Martin was working on another patron, Albert Bender, 75, who like Duffy was pinned in place by concrete. As the coroner later remarked, Bender was "losing blood faster than it could be infused into him". As Martin worked frantically to keep Bender alive, and as an oxygen hose was passed down to Duffy to share with the women, the rescue teams were ordered out of the building for fear it would further collapse in an apparently imminent aftershock.
No-one wanted to leave. Playford said that when he told Duffy the terrible news, he replied: "Alright. You know what you're doing. You've got everything in hand. I'll look after these ladies down here."
And he did. But when the paramedics returned as little as 20 minutes later, Albert Bender had succumbed to his injuries. The coroner said the police inspector who ordered the building cleared was unaware of Bender's predicament, but the unconscious man "could not have been saved", even had the paramedics stayed. Although having Bender "left helpless in his dying moments" was "perhaps the most unfortunate incident during the disaster", the coroner was able to conclude that "no life was lost that could have been saved".
As well as Miriam Duffy and Albert Bender, another 10 people were to die in the quake that day.
Carol Anne Coxhell, 49, of Adamstown Heights, was a club staffer; Verlena Maree March, 53, of Carrington, a club patron; Peggy Theresa Stone, 75, of Thornton, was there to play 'hoy' or 'bingo' and Eileen Mary Werren, 69, of Mayfield West, had gone to renew her membership. Leonard Charles Norris, 60, of Newcastle, was with a mate, club maintenance worker, Barry Francis Spark, 60, of Mayfield. Both died in the basement of the club. John Anthony O'Shanassy, 30, a truckie from Sydney was setting up for the big Crowded House and Split Enz concert that night.
Three Hamilton residents died when awnings and walls fell in Beaumont Street. They were Cecil Robert Abbott, 59, Dulcie Alice Bliim, 78, and Cyril Keith McMahon, 62.
The day after the quake at Royal Newcastle Hospital, Levener Georgia Watson, 63, Blackalls Park. died of a brain haemorrhage, which the coroner said was "probably" because of raised blood pressure brought on by the quake. From that day, July 18, 1990, Levener Watson became the quake's 13th official victim.
I can see the sun. We'll all be out in the sunshine soonNorm Duffy to the women trapped and injured with him in Newcastle Workers Club
Dozens of people, many of them elderly, broke bones and suffered other serious injuries in building collapses, and their stories, too, became part of quake lore.
And the heroes were not just the front line rescue workers. Charities such as the Salvation Army quickly set up feeding stations to help sustain those whose efforts would in many cases continue for two or three days with little or no sleep. At the club, a 26-year-old unemployed man, Stephen Pirie, spent the day distributing - in a sign of the times - "ice-cold soft drinks and cigarettes" to the rescuers. The supplies had been arranged by police from a Woolworths store that was still in Hunter Street at the time.
Across the road, the owners of a photocopy shop gave over their phone lines and toilet to whoever needed them.
Fire crews from a damaged Cooks Hill station less than 200 metres away in Union Street were first on the scene and worked alone before being joined by the successive waves of rescue, medical, police, SES and Volunteer Rescue Association crews, their numbers swelled by reinforcements bringing specialist equipment, and then heavy demolition machinery.
A year later, the ambulance service announced a series of commendations, including a Ribbon of Valour award for Duffy. An off-duty nurse Leslie Elvin, was recognised for her "selfless and untiring" work in administering to people trapped in the club wreckage.
At a time before mobile phones were household items, communications were chaotic, with the coroner remarking on the failure of telephone and radio equipment. Hamilton ambulance station maintained crucial operations despite substantial quake damage. And Royal Newcastle Hospital was calmly evacuated of hundreds and patients and staff, who spent an hour or more in Pacific Park or next to Newcastle Beach before moving back in or being shifted to other facilities.
As the Herald's Denis Butler observed on the first anniversary, there was "no broad picture to be had" in the hours after the quake, because "the scale of the disaster was too great to be appreciated".
"Behind the rescue services the relief agencies swung into action, prepared to face whatever happened in the wake of the earthquake," Butler wrote.
"Order, which is the true mark of a real community, came swiftly to the areas most badly affected."
The Wednesday after the quake, Mark Riley - nowadays Seven Network's chief political correspondent, but then with the Herald - noted that things were finally starting to slow down after six days of extraordinary toil.
Newcastle had two faces, Riley said: its architecture, which had "always looked old, but distinguished", and its people, who "would be alright".
"The metal may be twisted, but the mettle is firm," Riley said. Or, as a policeman on a barricade had told him: "It's been a big week, mate . . . but now we're just plain buggered."
- This story is part of a series by journalist, Ian Kirkwood, marking 30 years since the Newcastle earthquake. On Thursday, the Newcastle Herald will publish Part V: The Lord Mayor's Earthquake Appeal
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