The Herald remembers covering the earthquake

LIKE most who lived through it, I know exactly where I was when the Newcastle earthquake hit.

I was in the Newcastle Herald office, on the phone to Street Real Estate agent Andrew Walker, when a large piece of metal fell past the window next to me.

A quarter of a century on – can that really be the case? – my memory is that the piece of metal preceded the swaying of the building.

When I rang Mr Walker on Tuesday to make sure I was remembering things right, he said ‘‘I’ll tell you what you said’’.

‘‘You said, ‘What the f--- was that?’ and I said ‘Mate, I think a train has derailed’ and then we both hung up and ran,’’ Mr Walker recalled.

Andrew Walker of Street Real Estate, standing outside the old Street Real Estate office that was all but destroyed in the Newcastle Earthquake.

Andrew Walker of Street Real Estate, standing outside the old Street Real Estate office that was all but destroyed in the Newcastle Earthquake.

My first thought was that the Herald’s presses had blown up.

We were both wrong, obviously, but when I finally made it to Walker’s  offices in Hunter Street at Civic Station later that day, I wondered whether my friend had made it out alive.

His office was one of the worst-hit buildings in the street, and in that pre-mobile era, and with phone services sketchy at best that day, it took a while to find out that he was all right.

As Greg Ray recounted in Tuesday’s Herald, acting chief of staff Mark Riley – now Seven News political editor – sent us to scope out various parts of the city.

Andrew Walker of Street Real Estate, standing outside the old Street Real Estate office that was all but destroyed in the Newcastle Earthquake.

I walked down King Street to the old RSL club building on the corner of King and Perkins Streets, which had a collapsed roof and bricks strewn everywhere.

 The old Street Real Estate office after the earthquake.

The old Street Real Estate office after the earthquake.

Demolition teams moved in that afternoon.

People were gathered outside buildings everywhere and although the first big rumour was a steelworks explosion, confirmation of an earthquake did not take long.

Past Civic Park I skirted up Auckland Street into Laman Street, where two friends of mine – Castanet Club members Mikey Robins and Kate Gray – lived at the western end of a row of brown terraces next to the Conservatorium of Music.

Mikey, later to become a national figure on TV, would probably have died had he stayed in bed as late as he normally did, because his bed was full of bricks and roof timbers and the side wall had blown out.

With photographer Andrew Maclean we photographed Kate looking abjectly at the hole in the side of her house – Mikey was renting a room – and we kept going.

A few minutes later we were at Newcastle Workers Club – very early in the piece – and it was then that the true magnitude of the disaster took hold.

People were wandering out bleeding and dazed on the footpath, with the action concentrated on that now famous gaping hole at the western end of the King Street frontage, where the underground carpark looked like a bomb site.

At that time the building was still only lightly guarded and so Maclean  and I did what any young and stupid journalists would do, we went around into Union Street, where a guard had not yet been placed, and entered the club from the old side entrance.

Our experiences inside the building were recounted the next day in a piece titled: ‘‘One glance shattered illusion over devastation.’’

 But for reasons that escaped me – and angered both Maclean  and I at the time – his images of the collapsed main dance auditorium were never used and have never, as far as I know, seen the light of day.

Nor are they likely to. I went back to the photo archives a few years later and the negatives were gone.

A priceless piece of Novocastrian history gone forever but I can only surmise that the paper’s then management, aware of our probable law breaking in entering the building, decided against using the pictures.

For those who remember the old auditorium with double-height ceiling and mezzanine level on three sides, let me tell you that you could only see a few feet in front of you from the door at the rear right of the room.

The ceiling had come down to floor level – the room had been flattened, effectively – and the only room to stand was under the mezzanine pillars just inside the door.

And although I wasn’t to know it at the time, somewhere at the other end of the room lay Split Enz roadie John O’Shanassy, who was one of nine people to die in the club that day.

Back out on the street, a frenzy of ambulances and police and rescue workers were doing their best to get to the injured workers, with a diminishing series of aftershocks – and fears of more predicted – delaying and frustrating proceedings.

Louise Fraser, still with the Herald, Tim Isles and one or two others of us covered the club in shifts that afternoon, reluctantly going back to Bolton Street to file our stories.

At some stage we must have had a car because I remember driving down Dawson Street, Cooks Hill, where I lived at the time, to see how things were.

My then girlfriend was out the front of our home – once I knew she was safe, I took off again – and it wasn’t until I got home that night that I learned that our rented terrace had its share of damage, although less than some of the others in the 19th century row.

My strongest memories of that day and the next were the sheer silence that covered the city, and the sound of bricks falling for the next few nights as bits of walls and chimneys kept tottering and falling to the earth.

With police blockades keeping sight-seers out of the city, it was only residents and essential services – including the Herald – that were allowed in, and I remember walking down the middle of Hunter Street like it was a deserted movie set.

 And I recall sharing a beer with some police officers on my walk back to Cooks Hill that first night. They were posted at the western end of the Hunter Street mall, and as we sat in the silence and sipped our drinks, it was in the rare camaraderie of strangers knowing that something bad had happened, but that we had all done our best, in our own separate ways.

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