A WOMAN whose injuries in the 1989 earthquake have resulted in decades of chronic health problems says she was surprised to find money left in the former lord mayor's earthquake fund, along with plans to give that money to another charity or cause.
Jennifer Matthews, of New Lambton, says she and the others seriously injured in the December 28, 1989, earthquake have become the "forgotten" people of the tragedy, left to cover their own chronic injury and health costs despite the millions of dollars raised at the time to assist them.
But one of the directors of the Newcastle Region National Disaster Relief Fund - which replaced the original Newcastle Lord Mayor's Earthquake Appeal Fund in 1994 - has justified the running of the new fund over the past 25 years.
Barrie Lewis, a director since 1995 and Newcastle City Council's town clerk at the time of the earthquake, said the fund had to operate in strict accordance with its court-mandated trust deed. Mr Lewis said there was no obvious way for the fund to help Ms Matthews or others now.
He said it was not in the fund's "mandate" to look for people who might need help, nor did it have "the resources" to keep track of what had happened to quake survivors.
It was up to them to contact the fund. No "individual" - as opposed to a registered charity - had ever applied to the new fund for help.
Mr Lewis's stance has been endorsed by the lord mayor who set up the original fund, John McNaughton.
Mr McNaughton said the directors of the post-1994 disaster fund had done "a wonderful job over the years administering what has been a very successful fund".
"They deserve all the credit in the world for doing a marvellous job for which they have received no remuneration," Mr McNaughton said.
Even if the fund has changed, the money was raised for Newcastle earthquake victims . . . I had no idea I'd be like this all this years later.Jennifer Matthews, seriously injured at 20 in the Newcastle Workers Club collapse
The Newcastle Herald was introduced to Ms Matthews at last month's Christ Church Cathedral earthquake anniversary service as someone whose problems had been sadly overlooked, or ignored.
A few days later she said she would speak publicly because she'd been shocked to find there was still $1 million in the fund, as the Heraldrevealed the day before the service.
She had looked before for contact details and been unable to find any, and thought the fund was wound up years ago.
While many of the older high-profile survivors had passed away, she believed there were others who were younger at the time they were injured, and who would still be suffering quake-related health problems.
"Even if the fund has changed, the money was raised for Newcastle earthquake victims," Ms Matthews said.
Ms Matthews was 20 when she was trapped and pinned by a slab of concrete in the collapse of the Newcastle Workers Club, suffering a badly broken left femur, or thighbone, and other injuries.
She had done work experience and training at the club and had caught the ferry from Stockton to look at the roster, having previously picked up three casual shifts.
While she was disappointed there was no work, she was quietly happy to have New Year's Eve off.
She said she was talking to friends and had put a few coins through the pokies, winning $80 on a five-cent or 10-cent machine, when she heard a huge bang and the lights went out.
"I was waiting for the backup generator to kick in but I knew I was in trouble when the floor started sloping away from me," Ms Matthews said.
Like others, she does not remember falling but she found herself in a sitting position, pinned across the legs by a large slab of concrete.
The Newcastle Herald's account of her ordeal on the Wednesday after the quake quoted ambulance officers describing a 45-minute operation to free her as "one of the quickest of the rescue effort".
But that simple assessment hid a lot of detail, as Ms Matthews says.
To start with, she was one of those left inside when the rescue personnel were controversially ordered out of the building for fears of an aftershock.
She says that when they returned and were lifting the concrete slab to free her, it slipped off a jack and fell back on her legs. Her left femur (upper leg) was already badly broken but it was the first time she felt the pain.
In the Mater for three days, and then to Royal Newcastle Hospital - where she was photographed by the Herald - she had a long metal pin inserted into her broken leg, and had her feet plastered. Her nose was broken, as were some fingers.
Out of hospital after three weeks she was rushed back two days later with blood clots in her broken leg, resulting in another three-week stay.
She would be back in hospital in November 1990 to have the pin removed.
"By that time, the post-traumatic stress disorder had set in, even if they didn't call it that back then," she says.
Represented by Legal Aid, Ms Matthews was one of 13 people who accepted settlements in late 1994 on the eve of a Supreme Court case against the workers club and the council.
The case was launched in 1990 and while Ms Matthews does not want to disclose the actual amount, it equates to a few thousand a year over the intervening time.
A November 1994 Legal Aid summary says she must repay the lord mayor's fund $5674.40, Medicare $2215 and the Department of Social Security an amount "to be advised".
She says the fund had given her $5000. The $674.40 was the cost of replacing her quake-day clothes, shoes and sunglasses.
"I'd written a document for the court about the impact of the quake" Ms Matthews said.
"I had no idea I would be like this all these years later. If I had thought the impact was going to last this long, I would have written it very differently."
Ms Matthews says she has had 13 operations since the quake, nine of which were quake-related.
Then there's the psychological toll - "flashbacks and so on" - and sessions with counsellors and psychologists she does not like to talk about.
Her daughter, Nicole Doley, says it has been an enormous effort for her mother to speak publicly about the quake.
"The money was raised by the people of Newcastle for the injured or for those uninsured and for those directly impacted by the earthquake," Ms Doley said. "That's how I interpreted the fund would be utilised."
Ms Matthews describes the earthquake as a "life shattering experience".
"My life changed forever on December 28, 1989."
The one good thing was meeting husband Stephen Doley, who would see her travelling back and forth to Newcastle for treatment while he drove the Stockton Ferry, where he still works today.
They married in 1994 and the family live modestly beside a busy suburban road.
"Because they say Stephen earns too much, I can't even get a health care card," Ms Matthews says, listing the various medications she takes, or has taken, to cope with the pain and other impacts of her injuries.
She received her HSC at TAFE in 1991 but her injuries, including problems holding things after the quake damage to her hands, meant she could not obtain paid work.
For years, Ms Matthews volunteered at her daughter's primary school, New Lambton South Public.
Her main love was the Scholastic book club, which she and another mother coordinated for 15 years until 2016.
Ms Doley said things became progressively harder from about 10 years ago when her mother had to start using walking sticks outside the house.
"Now it's helping the librarian with the book fairs once or twice a year, but volunteering gave my mum a sense of purpose and a goal in life, instead of being defined by her injuries, by the earthquake," Ms Doley says.
Although he stressed it was a personal opinion, Mr Lewis said the present fund would be unlikely to help Ms Matthews because of her Supreme Court settlement, which "would have taken all of the factors into account, and which she agreed to".
Mr Lewis said he believed the reaction from the original donors to the earthquake fund would "not be good" if "further assistance" was given to Ms Matthews or anyone else injured in the quake.
He could not say what the board will do with the remaining money, but its next meeting was on January 28.
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