Tom Melville 0:00 Just a warning. This podcast contains descriptions of violence and discusses suicide and post traumatic stress disorder. discretion is advised. If you need someone to speak to call Lifeline on 13 11 14 will be on blue on one 1300 22 4636. Hi, I'm Tom Melville, and this is voice of real Australia. Each episode we bring new people, places and perspectives from beyond the big cities. 25 years ago, a lone gunman who we won't name in this podcast, killed 35 people and injured dozens more predominantly at the Port Arthur Historic Site outside Hobart in Tasmania. The shootings rocked the entire country, and resulted in strict gun laws the government hoped would prevent such an atrocity from ever happening again. The echoes of that violence are still reverberating, and for survivors, victims, families and first responders, the trauma persists. The Port Arthur massacre is a difficult subject to broach in Tasmania. And mass murder is surrounded by an unofficial vow of silence. But some people think we should talk about it in order to help Port Arthur, Tasmania and the country heal. Melissa Mobbs works for The Examiner based in Launceston. She spoke to first responders who were there, some of whom are breaking their silence after 25 years
Hank Timmerman 1:22 I was at home and we just finished having a lunch actually. And sometime after one o'clock. And the radio room rang me and said, "Look, we might have an incident that may involve a callout with SOG, just giving you a heads up." We just heard that somebody's got a gun down at Port Arthur and shooting. And that was the first call that I had.
Melissa Mobbs 1:45 Hank Timmerman lives with the trauma of being on the frontline during the Port Arthur massacre.
Hank Timmerman 1:49 My name is Hank Timmerman, I'm a retired inspector of police. Back in 1996 I had a part time role as the officer in charge of the Special Operations Group. My full time role was in fact in charge of the police communications Operations Center. Yes, and I retired about 11 years ago,
Melissa Mobbs 2:09 he feels for the victims, their families and his fellow officers who confronted unimaginable scenes on that dark day in April 1996. speaking publicly about his experience for the first time, Hank tells me how the encounter still impacts him 25 years later,
Hank Timmerman 2:24 because it is so real and because there are still so many victims out there. I'm including not only those that were directly injured, but all their families, all their friends, everybody else that had anything to do with Paul Arthur, it is still very, very, very raw. You can probably tell from the emotion that I'm displaying too that. I guess that doesn't mean we shouldn't talk about it. But there are ways that you can talk about it.
Melissa Mobbs 2:53 Hank, like many other police officers, and Tasmanians in general won't speak the shooter's name. And he's only talking to me to help honour the victims,
Hank Timmerman 3:01 I forget who the perpetrator was. I mean, he spoken about, unfortunately, Far too often, and what we should be doing and not speaking about him but but speaking about and honoring the victims,
Melissa Mobbs 3:13 even more than two decades later, the anniversary of the massacre remains a taboo topic. And Hank says discussion of it is often overshadowed by gun control, conspiracy theories, and finger pointing.
Hank Timmerman 3:23 Some of the things that are really cruel, from my perspective is the conspiracy theorists who continue to peddle out the rubbish to think that we would put ourselves in that sort of a situation, in so much danger, and allow other people to be put in so much danger, or for the sake of satisfying their conspiracy theories is absolutely beyond me. I just, I can't understand that at all. And I get quite angry about every time somebody espouses a view. And I have my say and then just walk away.
Melissa Mobbs 4:00 Hank also faces people questioning the actions of the first responders.
Unknown Speaker 4:04 And then the other thing that that I have to live with all the time is I wouldn't mind $1 for every one that said to me why didn't you shoot him. The fact is, we have to work within the bounds of the law. We were given no specific indication at any time that we had observations of him to give us any legal reason to take immediate action in that regard. At the end of the day, we're trained police officers, professional police officers, we're not mercenaries.
Melissa Mobbs 4:35 Hank didn't take the decision to talk to me lightly. He's conscious that for many, the pain lingers, but he felt he could finally share his story. Because his story and the victims' stories should not be forgotten. Hank was a member of the Tasmanian Special Operations Group. The highly trained unit of Tasmania's police force trained to respond to the most complex and dangerous incidents. Before hank and his team were sent to Port Arthur, the local police radio room The first triple zero call.
Brett Smith 5:01 My name is Brett Smith. I'm currently a commander in Tasmania police. In April of 96. I was a sergeant, a newly promoted sergeant in police radio room in Hobart. On this particular Sunday, it was just a routine Sunday, it was quite a normal autumn day.
Melissa Mobbs 5:21 It was in the radio room that Brett Smith and other operators received an influx of calls about shots being fired at Port Arthur. A freshly promoted sergeant at the time, he remembers the details clearly.
Brett Smith 5:31 And it was about, and I remember this quite vividly, it was about 1:38. I can just see the hands on the clock now where one of our senior operators yelled out across his console to mine, he said, Hey, sir, do you better have a look at this one. And at that particular point, another operator yelled out more calls on shots at Port Arthur. So in a very, very short space of time, we virtually had a tsunami of calls coming in saying bad shots being fired. And at a point, then there were people being shot. And so the situation then ramped up very, very quickly,
Melissa Mobbs 6:10 Brett says that, despite their training, it never occurred to anyone that what eventuated across the 28th And 29th of April was even a possibility,
Brett Smith 6:17 You didn't really get a lot of time to think, even though you're hit with that feeling of shock, you know, an operation like this, it's something that at that time, and we did quite a bit of incident management training back then we could just never conceive would be real. But the reality is the basic principles are pretty much the same. So we just pulled it all back to the basic principles. And that is get police to the scene, isolate and contain and get people out that we need to get out
Melissa Mobbs 6:50 The reports quickly changed from shots being fired to people being shot. How did you switch your mind from that state of shock as a human being like, wow, this is actually happening to I'm a police officer and I need to do a job.
Brett Smith 7:02 The initial shock feeling is that I suppose that it was that feeling that the tightness in the gut, that grabs you, that's the feeling I'm talking about. But at the same time, and I don't know how it happens with adults, but for me, it was just a matter of said to switch on and go straight back to basics and put our people at the sign, try and get some information out try and get work out where the source of the problem was, and deal with that way, all at the same time.
Melissa Mobbs 7:33 But it was not until the operators started writing down victims names that the reality of what had happened truly said in
Brett Smith 7:38 There was a lot of feeling of disbelief. I remember, we started writing names up on the whiteboard of people we believed been deceased. And that would have been through a very cursory identification check by the people that we ultimately managed to get to the front to the scene. And the enormity of that hit a number of our operators. When you started to see a list of 10 names. For example, on the whiteboard, I vividly remember looking at it on one operator was actually writing it down. And the enormity of that I think it all was at the time as to as to what we were actually faced with here.
Melissa Mobbs 8:14 Brett remembers his training taking over, he had a job to do.
Brett Smith 8:18 But I pitched in and help with the other operators early on. And the phone calls were coming in or the few phone calls diverted to me and you could hear the shots in the background. There were people on the phone that were clearly scared. But there were some that were very articulate with what they were seeing and hearing. And some were describing how people have been shot where they'd been short. And there was also a call that I took from one person about two young children that had been just being shot. So the enormity of that I suppose it was probably I was probably a little bit detached emotionally. It was for me it was business. When the dust settles and you've had time to reflect on that. That's when the emotion normally kicks in.
Melissa Mobbs 9:02 On the ground. Hank Timmerman was preparing for a situation they knew almost nothing about. They didn't even know how many shooters there were
Hank Timmerman 9:08 helicopters were being organized to fly down to Port Arthur, cause they will report to have a number of injured people and we weren't aware of any deaths or if there were maybe one or two, but certainly a lot of injuries. And so that was also at that time, it was organized for four of my surgery team to actually fly down to Port Arthur in a helicopter, fully kitted up because at that stage, we have absolutely no idea where the gun man or I should say, gun, men or whatever, because we've no idea how many, let alone what was going on down there or where they were. So it was imperative that we got down there as quickly as we could.
Jim Morrison 9:49 So I'm Jim Morrison I on the 28th of April 1996. I was a detective senior Sergeant and Tasmanian police had been in the police service since 1974 and I was the on call. Special Operations Group tactical commander,
Melissa Mobbs 10:04 Jim Morrison was preparing offense at his property near Hobart when he was first contacted about the incident.
Jim Morrison 10:08 The first report commented about three or four people have been shot than another mobile call came in, like minutes later, went from, you know, a four to 10 people to be shot then it was 12 to 14 then 16 to 18. I specifically remember thinking on knowing Tasmania Well, from a policing sort of perspective, and knowing Port Arthur at that time of the year, being very touristy with a lot of buses, and I expected a lot of tourists down there. If these reports were real, and they needed to be validated, police and still responding then there was going to be quite an event of serious magnitude in that location.
Melissa Mobbs 10:45 Shortly after that initial call, Jim was on a flight to Port Arthur. In that period, the shooter had fled Port Arthur in a stolen car. After killing its occupants. He drove to a service station killed a woman and took a man hostage before making his way to the seascape cottage, where the violence had originated when he murdered its owners earlier that day. On arrival, Jim was confronted by a hostage situation and was ultimately involved in a more than 20 hour long standoff with the gunman. At the time, police could not be certain who the shooter was, if they were working alone for how many hostages there were.
Jim Morrison 11:15 So as we were approaching, we were directed to the seascape property and the information suggests that a car had been stolen. One of the occupants of the car had been shot, another one had been abducted, and they'd been taken to the seascape bed and breakfast and police had responded to that location and had been shot at and were pinned down in a ditch and from the helicopter. As we approached, you could see a plume of smoke, where reports that suggested the stolen car had been set on life. The next morning, on the 29th of April, smoke was seen coming from the property, there was the sound of a lot of ammunition going off in the fire. Our military action plan was actually activated and we were instructed to proceed down to the seascape property to the reports of a naked person lying on the ground. Yes, I was part of that I was part of the arrest team that arrested who turned that person turned out to be the offender. And he was arrested. He was naked, and he had burns to quite a part of his the back of his body.
Melissa Mobbs 12:14 The gunman had set fire to the property, and police later learned he had killed his hostage. That was when he came running out of the cottage covered in flames. Hank was also there through the night and remembers coming face to face with a shooter during his arrest.
Hank Timmerman 12:26 He had the most shocking eyes that you could ever stare into. I mean, he didn't say anything intelligible as before. And the negotiator bore that out. When he was speaking to him on the phone, he was just speaking rubbish, really. And therefore we didn't get any intelligence that we could use and to determine whether or not he was alone, or whether or not he had hostages who were alive, which we thought he did have throughout the whole time. But unfortunately, now that both hostages were in fact, dead before he came out, but I'll never forget the looking in his eyes. Now.
Terry McArthy 13:09 The reality is, is the role of the crisis negotiation team is to try to resolve the situation as peacefully as possible. So you take it on board that your role is to try and resolve the situation peacefully so nobody's got to risk their life and hopefully, that you can rescue people that are perhaps being held hostage without them being hurt.
Melissa Mobbs 13:32 Police negotiator Terry McCarthy was tasked with calling the seascape cottage landline to get in contact with the person inside.
Terry McArthy 13:38 So my initial brief was to make contact with seascape and try to find out what was happening there. And whether there was anybody there and what that person knew or what that person's involvement was. So I started making phone calls to that particular address. Initially, there was no answer. I can't remember now how many calls I made before. Finally, the phone was answered by a person who later became known to me as the gunman.
Melissa Mobbs 14:06 Terry had worked as a police negotiator since 1989. And had extensive experience in counterterrorism at both the state and national level. But the Port Arthur tragedy was unlike any other situation he had experienced.
Terry McArthy 14:18 Probably the nearest thing to that would be a national exercise where there is some major incident involving terrorists and perhaps some some loss of life and a hostage siege type situation that then has to be resolved.
Melissa Mobbs 14:34 Terry spoke directly with the shooter for some time. Then the cordless phone inside the cottage went flat and they lost contact.
Terry McArthy 14:41 We essentially lost contact when the battery went flat and we had no way of making contact with him again, there is a process for trying to reestablish contact, but the nature of the incident and the gunfire that was emanating out of seascape made it impossible to even can Sudan negotiating another line into the house that we could use. The pressure then came on once the battery went flat is how are we going to safely re establish communications?
Melissa Mobbs 15:12 They couldn't. And it would be a long wait for the standoff to come to its conclusion. The most enduring memorial to pull it off is 35 dead is called the National Firearms Agreement that was passed a mere 12 days after the massacre, and was a result of all the states and territories coming together to place strict controls on automatic and semi automatic weapons. The government also spent millions of dollars buying back the weapons which were in circulation. That was hugely controversial at the time, such was the fear when the Prime Minister john Howard addressed a pro gun rally in Gippsland, Western Victoria A few months later, his security detail thought it necessary for him to wear a bulletproof vest. There are still many people who think the laws went too far and a small but vocal minority believes the shootings were actually set up by the government in order to force the gun laws through
Patrick Allen 15:56 I'm Patrick Allen, during Port Arthur I was attached to crash investigation services Hobart and My roll at Port Arthur was to head down there basically and I ended up in the ditch outside seascape,
Melissa Mobbs 16:10 Australia may now be a safer place to live because of the aftermath of the Port Arthur massacre. But that doesn't make the mental health burden easier to bear. It's something retired officer Pat Allen is all too familiar with. He was one of two officers trapped in a ditch outside seascape cottage for more than eight hours during the siege with the shooter. So do you remember what you're doing the day or when you first found out what was happening there?
Patrick Allen 16:31 I certainly do. It was a Sunday and Sundays were renowned for sit there and do paperwork on a computer at the time and Judy bike officer came into the to the station This is at police headquarters and said Dan, are you here on what's going on on the radio. So that's what we did. And we heard about the what was obviously a very large developing situation, we decided to hook up together go in the crash investigation care and head down that way, in case they needed more support
Melissa Mobbs 16:58 Pat was told there were wounded civilians ahead of the fox and hounds inn, and checking on them meant driving straight past seascape, where they believe the shooter was, it was an incredibly dangerous task.
Patrick Allen 17:08 So as I'm coming down the road, I'm thinking heads on the right. If he's in there, that's not a good thing. Just what I got with the inside of the place, I did a U turn. And that's when he opened fire. And so I just bet I had a choice, get out of there or back down the road and get to Gary. And that's what I did. So back down the road, got it under fire, and we went into a ditch. And that's when we stayed for quite a few years,
Melissa Mobbs 17:28 The trauma of the Port Arthur massacre has stayed with Pat for the last 25 years,
Patrick Allen 17:32 as much as you want to shake it out of your head, you can't do it. You just can't do it. And every time you hear metnion of Port Arthur, mention of films being made mention of the thing that was involved in it. You just it just all comes pouring back.
Melissa Mobbs 17:47 He says life rolled on, but that nothing would shake the memories.
Patrick Allen 17:51 My personality has completely changed. I became someone I hated at the end of the day, and most people hated as well, because of the way I was. And over time, over many years, things happened to destroy my family basically. And it's just been a constant. PTSD has been a constant thing in the life. I've got control of it at the moment. But it doesn't take much for me to to completely. overreact to something I even sitting here talking to you on judging you right now about Are you a threat to me in any way, you know that threat situation might leave in the head
Melissa Mobbs 18:30 Pat has sought help for post traumatic stress disorder. But it's something he still deals with every day.
Patrick Allen 18:35 I've been to psychiatrists, psychologists, and there's not a lot can be done. I've just got to work through it. And episodes happen. I'd love to not do it. I'd love to not have this buildup thing where I'll go into a hotel back into a corner and I'll just watch everyone everyone's a threat until they're not you know, a friend or a threat until they're not families or threat until They're not. It's just stupid, but but your mind can't stop dealing with it and it's a constant lack of sleep. probably haven't slept properly since 1996. In all seriousness, I on average, I've picked up a little bit recently, I'm almost up to five hours a night, which is probably good, but it's very broken sleep and the dreams and my current partner could tell you the nightmares and the waking up or even had to go and get myself a little PTSD dog that can recognize when I'm starting to go downhill a bit and it almost lets me know by sitting on the lap that you know what's wrong with you. So it's um it's just a constant thing and it's gonna ruin my life till the day I die.
Melissa Mobbs 19:34 Port Arthurs marks the site of the shooter's rampage with a small Memorial Garden. Teryy McCarthy has long thought that this isn't enough. He wants a more significant tribute to honor the victims.
Terry McArthy 19:43 There is really no information there about what happened to those 35 people and and all the other people that were injured. They made a very significant sacrifice for our nation. Our gun laws changed for the safer I guess after that event and Yours. for visitors who perhaps weren't even born when it happened, there's really no information there to sort of tie them into the history of the place, and they are part of the history now for other.
Melissa Mobbs 20:11 It's been 25 years since the shooter was arrested. He was eventually convicted, and the judge gave him 35 life sentences, one for each of his victims, and more than 1000 years without parole. But despite the passage of time, and the world's leading gun reforms enacted in the massacres wake, nothing can return what was lost that day, not the victims, nor the sleepy sense of security Tasmania had, the crimes were just too awful, and is still to roll. Some of the officers I spoke to even refuse to be interviewed at the shoot, his name was spoken. And all of them, including Hank rarely returned to Port Arthur.
Hank Timmerman 20:45 Well, it took me 10 years to actually go back to Port Arthur resolved, attending the incident. And I've been back a couple of times since. And it's got it got easier, for sure. But on the on the anniversary, I usually have flashbacks as to what occurred. And, you know, I guess it's some sort of a feeling of hopelessness, in as much as whatever damage was done, was done well, before we even got on the scene. And so regardless of what action we did, or could have taken, was never going to change what happened. And that's, that's really sad, really sad for for everybody concerned. And a lot of people will put through a lot of trauma, not only directly but indirectly. And since people being affected in all sorts of different ways. And there's absolutely nothing that anybody could have done to change. What happened.
Melissa Mobbs 21:52 most years, an intimate vigil is planned at the port other side. For some, that's even too much. leave the past in the past, they argue, but some people disagree, and say that we should be talking about it in a respectful way. And that the wall of silence surrounding Port Arthur does not serve the victims. Brett Smith, who was in the radio room on the 28th and 29th of April hasn't spoken publicly since the massacre until now. He says it should be up to people themselves, whether they speak or not.
Brett Smith 22:18 Again, I think it's a personal thing for people, I think it's very difficult to draw the conclusion that people shouldn't do certain things or feel certain things or behave in a certain way. It's very individualized and have a lot of impact for a lot of people. And it will continue to have for many, many years, I'm sure our nominee choosing to speak to as the first or second time I've only ever spoken about him. And the first time was immediately straight after. But I've not spoken about it. Since it's not that I haven't been comfortable with it. I just haven't seen the need to do it publicly. We must respect everyone involved in this and not make judgments about what they should and shouldn't do.
Melissa Mobbs 22:57 Hank Timmerman agrees.
Hank Timmerman 22:59 And I guess the story does doesn't have to be told. But as long as it's done in a respectful way. That pays respect to everyone that was impacted by the incident, then I guess I don't really see a problem with it. Because we can learn a lot from history. And we have learned a lot from that history. In fact, you know, with laws being changed all that sort of thing. But yeah, I guess the The Untold Stories is how not only how much it impacts everyone that attended and the broader community, but how long it affects them. And people have to be mindful of that.
Melissa Mobbs 23:36 Jim Morrison says we should be talking about it. If only to remember the efforts of the first responders who treated the wounded and ultimately brought the shooter to justice,
Jim Morrison 23:43 we do need to find a balance and there are certain things that I will never reveal to anyone apart from those that I served with during that 20 hour plus seige at seascape. but I respect the fact that the true heroes are the first responders that went to the penitentiary site and dealt with that Carnage and that that horrific tragedy. It's not about me it's about it's about me supporting events of those police those ambulance and and the people down at Port Arthur. That's exactly where I find my balance and how far I want to talk about this. It's not nothing to do with me it's about to do respecting those that that face that
Melissa Mobbs 24:19 For Terry McCarthy, there isn't enough information available at the site. And more should be done to give visitors some context about what happened and about why the victims didn't die in vain.
Terry McArthy 24:29 That's my view. And I stress this as my personal view. They deserve some respectful attention. And even if there was just an area report Arthur, where if somebody was curious about what happened on that tragic day, where they could go and find out information. The Cross, which is a beautiful memorial to the people that lost their lives is great. But it's just a list of names to people that don't really know what happened. It would be nice to be able to Maybe go to some console there and, and see, okay that person was related or was involved with that person at cetera, et cetera and understand that they were visitors know that having a wonderful holiday experience which was tragically taken away. They lost their lives but as a consequence of them losing their lives, I believe Australia's a safer place to live in.
Melissa Mobbs 25:23 While the simple mention of Port Arthur can trigger his PTSD. Pelin says it still needs to be talked about. He's speaking to me now, because he's friend recently took his own life, and argues we need to be more open to talking about trauma that it helps to heal. He says despite strong support for police immediately after the situation, more needed to be done to help those still suffering.
Patrick Allen 25:43 I think it's very important that we speak up about incidents like that, and say that you need to really handle it and make sure people are looked after look after people. God even in America, the most backward place in the world, as far as I'm concerned, when it comes to this type of stuff. They actually look after their people after a traumatic event. We just don't seem to care. I mean, all the civilians that went through all that down there as well, you know, the trauma to those would have been far greater than to the police probably because we kind of expect to see bad things, but they didn't. You know, the whole society needs to really start looking at where we are with this with this whole PTSD or mental health. You have a look at the portion of budget that spent on mental health. It's it's about a portion of the police budget overall. They say they do a lot. Sorry,
Melissa Mobbs 26:30 Tasmania police says there is help available for serving and retired officers. It says the Port Arthur tragedy was the beginning of decades of research into police wellbeing. Jim Morrison is speaking out as part of the campaign to maintain Australia's gun laws. He returned to Port Arthur for the first time in 25 years as part of a walk organized by the AIlana and Madeline Foundation, named in memory of two of the shooters youngest victims.
Jim Morrison 26:52 I have tried to put that behind me and certainly leaving Tasmania and bringing my family to Victoria for other opportunities helped to do that. I guess 25 years on and here I am talking to you. I did that I turned my back on events and tried to keep it to myself, because it does nothing to the victims. And the way they're dealing with grief and trauma for others to speak out. But I guess I'm doing this now because most Australians support strong gun safety framework, and we must collectively do everything we can to avoid a US console culture, or certainly another Port Arthur.
Tom Melville 27:32 That's Jim Morrison talking to the examiners Melissa Mobbs. He's gone back to Port Arthur for the first time in 25 years in an effort to maintain Australia's gun laws. And again, if this story has impacted you in any way, and you need someone to speak to, you can call Lifeline on 13 1114 or beyond blue on one 1300 22 4636.
That's it for this episode of voice of real Australia. Thank you for listening, subscribe on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen and I'll be back in a couple of weeks. If you liked the podcast, please tell your friends and give us a five star rating on Apple podcasts. It really does help. If you'd like to share your story Email us at voice at aust Community media.com.au that's voice at aust A ust community media.com.au our Facebook page is facebook.com slash voice of real Australia. Follow me on Twitter at Tom Melville 124. Voice of real Australia is recorded in the studios of the Newcastle Herald is produced by Laura Corrigan and me Your host Tom Melville. Special thanks this week go to Courtney Griesbach, Donna Adams and Phil Biggs. Our editors are Gail Tomlinson and Chad Watson. This is an ACM podcast.