Gracetown tragedy, 27 Sept 1996, 9 dead

The front door of my house burst open. Startled my eyes fixed upon the blood drained anguished face of Alison the postmistress of our tiny town Cowaramup “The cave has collapsed the police want all the men down The Bay…. the kids are trapped”

The time was 3.05 on a Friday afternoon just 12 minutes earlier an event that was to be forever known as the Gracetown Tragedy had taken place. It was and probably still is the single most tragic event Australian surfing has experienced.

On a wet Friday afternoon sports period, two primary schools, Cowaramup and Margaret River came together to compete in their annual surf challenge series. The hooter sounded to mark the finals at around 2.45pm the small clean faces of “Huzzzers” were eagerly attacked by the 4 young finalists .Absorbed with their duel the young surfers had no idea the hooter would never sound to end the heat. Before the final was over, 9 people were dead.

I ran to the garage and scoped up a shovel on the way flinging it into the back of the landcruiser my mind was racing one shovel! I headed straight for the gas station I knew they had more shovels and I figured that maybe others could use them. The garage doors were wide open, pumps on, oil draining into a bucket on the floor beside tools dropped by the mechanics, Alison had been here first. I grabbed a bundle of shovels out from a cut down 44 gallon drum and pitched them into the cruiser stopping for all but a second to take in the surreal vibe of the little town, open for business, its people vanished.

The 8 minutes it takes to drive from Cowaramup to the Bay felt like an eternity Alison’s words running through my head over and over “the cave has collapsed, the kids are trapped”

Cave? the only cave I knew of was up behind North Point where Arthur Armstrong had found the remains of an aboriginal and wisely left them alone and told few. What would the kids be doing up there? It was a jigsaw with a missing piece the picture incomplete.

The Kids? The kids were at a surf comp what would they be doing up there?

The comp the comp! the interschool comp my young son was pestering me to compete in, I was at home a few minuets ago waiting for his bus so as to take him to Huzzers to surf with his friends after the comp. I loved to watch him surf even at 10 years.

Huzzers the nursery of Western Australian surfing a place where even on the biggest swell I would be comfortable dropping my young son off so he could surf with his friends while I race to the other side of the little bay to North Point and surf with my mates.

Huzzers?.. Cave?.. my mind was still racing as I guided the landcruiser over the crest at North Point the single road entry to the Bay. The view form here is panoramic but this time I did not take in the lineup or the beautiful backdrop of the natural amphitheater designed by some divine being specifically for surfers and fisherman. This time my focus was drawn by the already 100 people on the rocky beach to Huzzes. The missing piece in my mental jigsaw dropped into place leaving a crater in my heart that it seems time will never heal.

Ian Bremner (39)

Gina Iddon (11)

Peter McFarlane (41)

Rebecca Morgan (12)

Lindell Otto (41)

Linsday Thompson (47)

Rachel Waller (12 )

Madline Wall (35)

Nathan Sotiriadis (13)

Killed on the 27 september 1996

The group were at Huzzas beach, Gracetown, Western Australia (known for the famous North Point wave) for the second leg of the inaugural Margeret River versus Cowaramup primary school surf competion. A karst limestone overhang under which 11 people were sheltering, gave way killing 9, just minutes into the final.

I remember that all too well. A tragic loss of so many young lives. Truely an act of god that noone could foresee. Pity the council didn’t listen earlier though…

Much later…just found this and read it. Very sad.

When the rains come, the sky opens up and spills tears down onto those left behind. The business of death is hardest on the survivors. The journey into the netherworld is a pleasant one once the anxiety and anticipation of outcome has been exhausted: will I stay or will I go?

I know this all too well, because I lived, and then I died, and then I returned (against all odds).

The return is harsh and frequently accompanied with pain that most earth bound creatures cannot comprehend. There was a good amount of time after my return that I cursed the powers that be that didn’t let me complete the crossing over. But like the rain, Mother Nature’s tears washed away some of the sting and refreshed my spirit and thirst for life.