“Newcastle people are tough and resilient. They are no strangers to hardship and as a result of this earthquake we will have the chance to not only recover, but to renew both ourselves and our community. And our suffering will strengthen our resolve to make for a better future.” Graham R Lawrence, Dean of Christ Church Cathedral Newcastle
The Newcastle Earthquake occurred mid-morning on the 28th December 1989 at 10:27 am. Measuring at 5.6 on the Richter scale it was one of the most serious natural disasters in Australia’s history, the epicenter being Boolaroo. The quake killed 13 people, while 160 people were hospitalised with injuries. The hardest hit areas were Beaumont Street in Hamilton, ELMA, and the Workers Club in King St, Newcastle, and The Junction. In addition, 50,000 buildings sustained damage approximately 40,000 of these being homes.
Catching Newcastle unaware, the shudders were felt as far away as Wollongong. It was recorded as being one of Australia’s most serious natural disasters. Some people claimed that it was related to the earthquake that had occurred in San Francisco, USA earlier in the year. Officials were quick to put a stop to this theory stating that the two catastrophes were in no way linked.
Due to a bus strike that was on at the time, there were fewer people in Newcastle that day. Nobody was aware that it was an earthquake at first. Some believed a bomb had been detonated, while others thought that the huge BHP steelworks had exploded. This fear was heightened by the appearance of flames coming from the steelworks, however this was later revealed to be the furnaces emptying in response to the quake.
The area that suffered a significant amount of damage was Beaumont St, Hamilton. At Flanagan’s Pharmacy a woman was found trapped in the rubble, one of her legs having been sliced off. Near her was a man with severe head injuries.
In 2009 a researches in the United States finished a paper on the earthquake. They determined that the cause of the earthquake was due to the 200 years of coal mining that has been done close to an existing fault. There was, and still is, a major fault existing beneath the coal fields. It remained dormant, and would have continued to remain so if it wasn’t for the fact so much water was pumped out to keep the longwall mines dry. That and the removal of millions of tons of coal. As a result the fault was reactivated with disastrous results. It concluded that when planning towns in the future, they should not be built as near to a fault as Newcastle is.
The Junction Public School was severely damaged in the quake. Mrs Bronwyn Law, who was the Deputy Principal of the school at the time, remembers how it affected the staff and students. It resulted in part of the school being demolished, though some buildings of the original school still exist today.
A week after the earthquake, a public forum was held at St Peters Hall, Hamilton. Organised by Margaret Henry and others. It gave an opportunity for the public to talk to authorities who were overseeing the clean-up and restoration of Newcastle. The three invited guests were Inspector Terry Deather, Solicitor Mark Sullivan, and Professor Robert Melchers, Civil Engineer. Tension, grief, loss and anger all came to the fore as some of the audience verbally clashed with the guests. It was evident that the town of Newcastle was struggling to come to terms with what had happened. The earthquake received press coverage around the world.
Newcastle Earthquake: In their own Words
The events and memories of that tragic day will stay with the people who lived through it forever. It interrupted ordinary people’s lives. Here a few of them tell of the memories they have, where they were, and what they were doing at the time.
“I was up on the second floor of the Sanitarium Health Food Company. Suddenly there was a bang and the power went off. I thought that l someone had dropped a mill roller. The brick walls gave a sound as though they’d been hit a heavy blow. I ran for my life. I thought someone was playing a trick on me and glanced back to see if they were laughing, but they were all running with panicked faces as well. We all gathered outside. The phones had stopped working and people thought something had gone wrong in the power station. Someone had a transistor radio and we heard there’d been an earthquake. When the power came back on somebody turned on a little TV they had and we watched footage from a helicopter flying around the city. We saw buildings had fallen down, and the chemistry building at Tighes Hill TAFE on Fire. The radio announcer was telling people to get out of the buildings and stay out of the buildings. I called my girlfriend who was holiday in Tasmania with her parents to let her know that I was safe.” Mr David Fisher, Cooranbong NSW
“I was in the shower washing my hair. I thought it was the washing machine spinning at first, then remembered it wasn’t on. I sat on the floor of the shower until it stopped then got dressed and went outside. Everyone else thought it was blasting for the freeway but I knew it was an earthquake because I’d lived in PNG.” Mrs Lisa Pratt, Cooranbong, NSW.
“Phil and I lived in Lithgow at the time. Early married. I was in the lounge room and I remember the goblets in my glass cabinet rattling. The floor was shaking ever so slightly. I thought wow that was a big blast from one of the mines. Phil was at Wentworth falls and they felt it there as well.” ~ Mrs Suzy Schwarz, Kingaroy QLD
“I was living in Cooranbong. When it happened, I was in my bedroom, programming. I had been desperately trying to fix a bug in the code. When I thought I was ready to test, I clicked on the “RUN” button to test and next thing you know, the desk and everything around me started shaking! I was a bit confused at first, thinking that my program was causing all the commotion–until grandmother and mum calmly came to tell me that it was a tremor (coming from Chile, a land of constant earthquakes and tremors, this was nothing new). I went outside where my dad had been yelling at my younger brother telling him to stop rocking the car he was under whilst fixing it and a neighbor was telling his son to hold the step ladder he was climbing more firmly.” Mr Jonathon Galindo, Bonnells Bay, NSW
“I dad gone in on the train to buy a TV. Had just put the TV on Layby and was upstairs in the Pink Elephant market next door. I felt the shaking and went down on my knees beside a big table. I thought the noise was a plane coming down. I finally found some stairs but couldn’t go into the car park on the same level because people said the ceiling was down. Found out that in the shop where I had just bought my tv it was just the fridges that kept everyone from being hurt. I got my grandchildren and we headed for the park. Wondered why all the rescue vehicles were flying past – wasn’t this where the action was? In the park we could see the roof down on the club. A lady had been having a perm and was in the park washing the solution out under the tap. The noise of sirens never stopped. Some said it was a gas explosion and it was about half an hour before we definitely knew it was an earthquake. We couldn’t get home on the train because there was damage and the trains were out. The buses never stopped at the park. Eventually I went over the road to a car parts place. I just wanted to make a phone call but the girl knew me from years ago and she drove us to her house at Warners Bay. Even there her lovely things had been thrown off the shelves. Was able to contact my friends and they came and got us. What a day!! We were so thankful we were safe.” Mrs Bobbie-May Johansen, Cooranbong NSW
“We had just moved into our new house a few days before so when all the pictures and photos started flapping on the walls I was startled! John’s parents were visiting from Queensland, and when the quake struck, his Dad was on the loo! He was startled too and wondered why the pedestal was bucking him off! My girlfriend, Colleen Pinchin and boys were driving by Beaumont St., Hamilton when the road was rolling like waves as she drove. Quite disconcerting for her. I now am scared to park down under buildings or walk under under shop awnings without checking how secure they are as many came down in Hamilton esp.” Mrs Lyn Medhurst, Cooranbong NSW
“I was in Tasmania on holiday with my parents. My brother who lived/s in Adelaide, SA rang us up and told us that there had been an earthquake in Newcastle. I thought he meant Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in England, so wondered why he was telling us. That was followed by a call from my boyfriend, now husband, David who was working as an electrician at The Sanitarium Health Food Company who rang to tell me that he was fine and safe. This puzzled me even further, then I saw the news reports and realised what had happened. When we got back to Cooranbong my dad and I went in to Newcastle to have a look. As we drove around the streets looked deserted and everything was awfully quiet. It was a really eerie and awful feeling.” Mrs Merilyn Fisher, Cooranbong NSW
“My husband Alec remembers how ‘quite’ everything was, the birds not making a sound, just quite. He was working over the engine of his old EJ Holden and he remembers a swaying felling and wondered if because his head was the angle it was, was he feeling light headed? The he head the ‘noise’. He stood up straight and looked around, our two small children at the time when busily playing on their bikes, nothing different for them. Then I came out of the house. I remember saying to Alec, I’m sure we have just had an Earthquake. He said, ‘what, you’re sure’? When I was a little girl of 5 years old, my Mum and I were living in New Zealand for a year. I still remember what it felt like or being woken to a ‘moving feeling’ either under the feet, during the day or being woken with the bed slightly moving. I was actually at the Kitchen sink that morning, washing the Breakfast things a bit later than usual. As I stood at the sink, I heard a rumble sound and then felt the ‘movement’ under my feet. It was like a ‘brief moment’ of being that 5 year old again and feeling that same ‘feel’ like when I was in NZ. When I went out and told Alec what I thought just happened, he went to the Garage and put the Radio on. It was battery charged and didn’t take long for a news flash to come over the Newcastle Radio Station to say ‘yes’ we had just had a Earth Tremor, then later the words were ‘Earthquake’. Don’t think we will ever forget that day and seeing what was latter on the NBN News of the devastation in Newcastle and Hamilton.” Mrs Jenny Howard Cooranbong, NSW
In Memory of those who lost their lives in the earthquake:
Albert Gavin Bender, 75 of Merewether. Killed in the rubble of the Newcastle Workers Club.
Dulcie Alice Bliim, 78 of Hamilton. Killed under a collapsed wall in Beaumont Street while shopping for a dress.
Carol Anne Coxhell, 49 of Adamstown Heights. Killed while filling poker machines at Newcastle Workers Club.
Miriam Coleen Duffy, 62 of Whitebridge. Killed in the collapse of Newcastle Workers Club.
Cyril Keith McMahon, 62 of Hamilton. Killed under a collapsing wall in Beaumont Street, Hamilton.
Verlina Maree March, 53 of Carrington. Killed while playing poker machines at Newcastle Workers Club.
Leonard Charles Norris, 60 of Newcastle. Killed in the basement of the workers club where he was visiting a friend.
Barry Francis Spark, 60 of Mayfield. Killed in the basement maintenance room at the workers club.
Peggy Theresa Stone, 75 of Thornton. Killed inside the workers club where she had gone for her weekly hoi game.
Eileen Mary Werren, 69 of Mayfield West. Killed at the workers club, where she had gone to renew her membership.
John Anthony O’Shanassy, 30 of Sydney. A rock band roadie killed setting up for a Split Enz concert at the workers club that night.
Levener Georgia Watson, 63 of Blackalls Park. Died the next day from a brain haemorrhage bought on by the stress of the earthquake.
Cecil Robert Abbott, 59 of Hamilton. Killed by a falling awning as he stopped for a chat outside the Kent Hotel.[i]
[i] All names taken from a report in the Newcastle Mercury Newspaper. The full article can be accessed at: http://www.maitlandmercury.com.au/story/2780453/newcastle-earthquake-25-years-on-photos/
By Kaye Fisher (UON Student)