Black Saturday Fires 10 Years On

By: James MacLeod - Managing Director, Tobin Brothers Funerals
Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Ten years on and this is the first time we have shared reflections on Tobin Brothers involvement in the Black Saturday fires and their aftermath.

The 7th of February is my wife Louise’s birthday.  I was acutely aware that there were fires burning in and around the State on that day, and we had people around that night for dinner.  In the morning I woke up to numerous messages on my phone and watched the early morning news to see what was filtering through.

Given the rising death rate on the Sunday morning, I contacted the State Coroner’s office to offer Tobin Brothers’ assistance, transferring those that had lost their lives in the fire savaged areas, to the State Coroners Court.   On Sunday 8th February we put together three teams to take three vehicles that were ready and waiting for direction from the Coroner.  The three teams were; David Stevens and Jayson Vicary, Damian Tobin and David Dimachki, and Leo Tobin and myself.  On the Monday the State Coroner contacted us around lunchtime and required two teams to head to Marysville.  The Black Spur between Healesville and Narbethong was closed.  We were advised by the Coroners that the police would open it for us to travel up to Marysville. Damian and David were deployed to the Kinglake area.

David and Jayson, Leo and I travelled up the Black Spur.  It was quite eerie upon arriving at Narbethong, as we turned onto the Marysville Road.  I remember turning to Leo, who was driving our vehicle, and saying “look at the ground” where forest once stood.  The ground had not a leaf, no birdlife, no wildlife, just complete and utter silence.   As we came into Marysville we came across the first row of houses, completely destroyed.  All that remained was concrete slabs, like a polishing machine had been across them all. 

Our instructions were to go to the CFA building as that was now the operations centre for Marysville, which was in lock down mode and classed as a crime scene. 

At the CFA we met a variety of local heroes; one I would like to identify from the outset was a police detective from Alexandra. He was to be the person that would lead us to each location in this township where we were required to bring those who had lost their life in this tragedy, into the care of the State Coroner.

The first locations we attended were the houses we first came across as we entered Marysville.  As a person at the time who had been in the funeral industry for nearly 25 years, I thought I had seen it all; I was quick to learn that I had not.  One of the first homes we came across was a family who had gathered together with their pets and had died together.  As we moved through that street, we drove into the main street where nearly every structure had burnt down. The motel was still standing yet the buildings either side and across the road were gone.  The bakery was still standing, I don’t know how and the buildings either side of it were burnt down.  To our amazement the plastic table and chairs and a red umbrella were still standing at the front of the bakery, yet everything else around it had gone. Leo and I spoke few words, it was a numbing experience.

On the Saturday, many had been directed to leave Marysville and were led out so bravely by a police officer.  The safety zone in the town was the football oval, some took refuge there, as the fire came up Marysville Road and swept through the town.  Sadly some didn’t make it to the oval, as we learnt in the hours ahead as we transferred those people into our care.  The only sign of life at the football ground, on the Monday, was a boat that sat in the middle of the ground. 

We transferred individuals, families, couples, mothers and their children, locals and visitors.  We spent much of the afternoon in the township.  We met two tremendous locals, a father and son.  Their other family members had left on the Saturday afternoon but the father and son chose to stay and defend their home, they are local earthmovers in Marysville.  Other homes in their street were lost, but they saved their house.

The father and son were tremendous assistance to us over the coming days and each day we would bring them supplies of food, petrol for their generators as there was no power and newspapers. As the town was in lock down, if they left they could not return. 

As the day wore on, David and Jayson returned to the Coroners Court and Leo and I were asked to go out of town a little way into the hills, to affect more transfers.  I will never forget driving past Marysville Bowling Club, there was a semitrailer parked at the front in a gravel carpark.  The radiant heat and the impact on this truck were amazing. There wasn’t a tyre left on the semitrailer or the truck and all the wheels were now square as the truck melted on the wheels.  

It was now getting towards dark and there was talk that we may not be able to get out of town, as the fire was burning on the Maroondah Highway, just out of Buxton. The suggestion was that we might need to stay in Marysville the night.  Finally, a Department of Forestry and Environment four wheel drive with a tank of water on the back needed to get back to Alexandra.  They would lead the way and we followed.

We came down through Buxton; there were many locals at the Buxton Hotel.  We travelled on.  We could see fires burning in the distance and as we drove further they were along the roadside and reached up in to the hills, visibility was poor.

We arrived in Taggerty where there was a police roadblock.  We waited a long period of time then went to Alexandra, arriving back at the Coroners Court at around 2am.

On Tuesday we were asked to go to Alexandra and wait.  David and Jayson, Leo and I did that once again.  David and Jayson were diverted to the Kinglake area and Damian and David were already there.   On that day Leo and I returned to Marysville, meeting up with the local father and son delivering their supplies, having a cuppa and chat with all those at the CFA.   After receiving our instructions from the detective once again, we transferred several people into our care. We returned on a number of occasions that week.

During the week we transferred over 30 people who had died in Marysville. David and Jayson and Damian and David attended numerous townships including; Kinglake, Strathewen, Steels Creek, Flowerdale, Whittlesea and St Andrews, transferring people’s loved ones into the care of the State Coroner.

Around 2013 I took my godson to Healesville Sanctuary for the day, along with my son Gus and daughter Grace.  My godson fell asleep in the car and I thought it was an opportunity to drive up the Black Spur and to Marysville.  I didn’t know how I would feel about it, but upon arriving there I just couldn’t stop visualising.   Whilst most of the township was now rebuilt, all I could visualise was the aftermath of Black Saturday - every location we went to, where every person we cared for had died.  You can never fathom what the people who lived there went through on Black Saturday.  I certainly do not pretend to.  In the aftermath I was amazed by the Australian spirit and those involved in the CFA, Search and Rescue, Police, the Departments of Forestry and Environment, and the locals that had bound together in adversity.

I couldn’t have been prouder of our team of people who assisted at this absolute time of need, that is why I continually say; “our people are our strength”.

 

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