The Bali bombings are now over ten years ago. What I write has the fog of the intervening ten years shaping it. Take this how you will. This is also a “crossing the streams” post (see the How did I get here page for an explanation). The Bali Bombings were really where I cut my teeth in disaster management, and it made me realise that this was the work that I wanted to do when I “grew up”. At that point I was acting as the State Recovery Manager for Victoria

At that point I was contemplating yet another career change. In fact I was on the phone to my sister Mary about what it would be like to become a teacher, when my work phone rang. It was Rob Gordon, a psychologist who worked with us. I actually ignored it and continued my conversation about my new career. I should add I was jetlagged, having spent three weeks in Europe, and only being back in the country three days. So my decision making wasn’t too clear. When I finally rang rob back, he explained what had happened in a “disco” in Bali, and we should be thinking about what we could do. I naively said, but that’s in Bali. He said, but who goes to Bali? The penny dropped, and not before long my boss was on the line. “What can we do?” he asked. The year before, we had given immigration officials at Melbourne Airport flyers to give to people returning from New York after 9/11, so my jetlagged fogged brain suggested that. He felt that we needed to do more. “OK”, I said Somewhere in my brain I remember a photo of my friend and colleague Michael Dickinson standing with the Spirit of Tasmania in the background handing out flyers to people who were returning from Tasmania after Port Arthur and drawing on my own experience of returning from overseas when my father died to be met by family and friends. “we send teams of people to the airport to meet with incoming flights, to help connect them to services, as well as a simple supportive welcome home, an acknowledgement that someone cares enough about their experience to meet them at the airport” Recovery can be about simple things.
I called my regional manager colleague, John Chaplain, who set off to the airport with his deputy, Linda Martins. They were our contacts with the airport plan. John and Linda met trouble at the airport, as the duty manager didn’t see the need for intervention, and that we could wait like everyone else outside the barriers. It wasn’t an airport emergency in his view. It was worked out pretty quickly.

We then set up a call centre hotline, and took calls from people looking for help, assistance, as well as some strange ones. One caller suggesting that the bombings were the work of the then CEO of Telstra. That first night I worked until 4am, drove home along Alexandra Avenue at 90kmh, then came back at 6.30 for meetings with the medical team, and the department’s coordination team. I was also keeping an eye on Jason McCartney, a North Melbourne football player who was severely burned in the bar, and in the Alfred Hospital. The days were a blur. We were running blind, as this was a new situation for us all. The disaster was out of the country, it was a crime, but our police weren’t the investigating police, and there were coronial processes to follow and bodies to be returned to families (which we hadn’t had to deal with in Victoria for some time), medical repatriation of those severely injured, and the fact that people were from all over the place and disappeared back into their lives. You couldn’t just do a letter drop, or an outreach visit.

Hanna and Emily were out of the country then, and I felt awfully isolated, and worried for them. We didn’t know was this the start of something. What type of world was Emily going to grow up in. I was so relieved when they returned from Germany. Not that I saw them much in that time.

Noise was what dogged me in those weeks. Constant noise. I can recall running two phones, and a pager, as well as having someone take calls back at the office. And running. Running between meetings, to other offices. I didn’t take a break for six weeks, until my best friend was getting married in Sydney, and I was best man. I remember falling asleep in the reception. I also resigned at some stage for 24 hours during this time. There were three of us working on Bali. You don’t need anyone else do you, said my director at the time. We also had to manage an ever worsening drought situation, and a now heightened terrorism alert. I had enough and threw up my hands in despair, and handed in my resignation. The next day, when I sat down with my director, things were sorted out and before long I had a team of 16.

Sleep was extraordinarily hard to come by, as my mind raced, not only with what had to be done, but the images of what had happened. I had deliberately not watched any news so I didn’t know what was being portrayed. This was when I realised the importance of music. A CD that I just happened across by listening to RRR-FM (great public radio), was from Silver Ray, this three piece from Melbourne that played melodic instrumental music. One piece, No need to try now goes for 10 or so mins. I would put this on at night and image that I was swimming at the beach, and I would swim along the Bay edge, and then come to the Port Phillip Heads and decide I would turn left towards Wilson’s Prom, or turn right towards Apollo Bay. I was usually asleep before I reached either place.
We ran monthly information sessions. Each month the same. The AFP giving information about the investigation, Centrelink about the financial assistance, Red Cross information about the appeal, and we then had Rob Gordon do a session on managing emotions. This was where I learnt the mantra of information: timely, accurate, clear, simple, repeated. We had the same people come to each of the sessions, and every time, despite us delivering the same information, people would say, ”That was a great session. Learnt so much” We ran the sessions each month for 12 months, advertising them in the sports pages, and in the cinema pages, trying to capture a range of people.
It was also where I learnt about angry crowds, and the 6 week and 6 month flashpoints. And because I was the one with State Recovery Manager on my badge, Rob said, Well John, you are the system, you need to go out the and let them be angry with you. But remember, they aren’t angry with you, they are angry with the system. And here’s what I think you should say…. We are sorry, this is a new challenge for us, we have had to make it up as we go along” I figured at that stage, my career as a public servant would be over. (not that I was ever a “good public servant”) . So that’s what I did, went out there and was a punching bag “You people in government. You don’t get it” (we were all government to the public, understandably so, we were “the system”) When the venting was done, I took a deep breath and said what Rob told me to say. The room was stunned, and there was a big intake of breath, and then people said right, thanks for that, how are we going to fix this. And so we set about fixing the problems the best we could.

The state memorial service was a big learning curve for me too. One was how amazing event managers are in getting the show on the road. Nothing is too challenging, and I have since then employed a number of event managers, know that they have the flexibility and intuitive problem solving abilities that you can often only wish for as a disaster manager. The other was, always, always keep the needs of the affected community central to the service. And ask. The organising committee, which I joined late, presumed, I think rightly at the time, that given Bali was seen as a young person’s destination, then the memorial service should not be too heavy, and feature a lot of music. Makes sense. One of my enduring memories of that period was sitting in the bowl, taking a few minutes off after another meeting, before heading back to the office, to listen to Joe Camilleri and the Black Sorrows run through Dear Children at soundcheck. It was a moment of respite in the noise. It was wonderful, they were playing for me, and a young girl sitting not far from me. I said, ”Isn’t that fantastic” She said, “Yes, that’s my dad”

The trouble was, it was all very respectful up until John Farnham closed it. The organising committee said it would be good to have someone uplifting, so Farnham played Age of Reason. The problem was, I’m not sure that he was briefed that well, and so he was playing it like he was at the entertainment centre. And lots of people rushed the front and started dancing, and he was playing to it. From my vantage point, I could see the stony faces of the bereaved, and the Premier and Governor. I felt pretty awful.

For the first anniversary memorial service, I think we did people justice. Family members and the Victorian Council of Churches were involved in shaping the service, guided by my terrific friend and colleague, Terri Elliott. It was a beautiful day, and the service so simple. A lesson well learnt.

I also learned about the true meaning of trauma. The stories people told me. Things they confided in me, their reactions. If anyone ever doubts or disbelieves what trauma is about, I tell them about the young woman who was frantically looking for her best friend in the fiery ruins of the sari club, and the blood and gore, or the guy who was too afraid to play football anymore, because he didn’t think he could control himself on the football field, or the women who walked past the fire jets at Crown Casino in Melbourne and freaked out, and the young woman who disclosed to me that she was sexually abused as a child, and I was the first person she had told. There are other gruesome images that will never leave me.

I learnt the value of having great colleagues. The people I worked with at that time were extraordinary. No task was too difficult, the compassion and passion was there from the start. I offered someone a job in the state ballroom at Government House. They were a rag tag bunch of misfits, none of them fitted the mould of a ‘good public servant’. That was their strength. There was the inevitable round of medals that came out at the time. We nominated these people, but they weren’t deemed worthy, because they were just “doing their job”. I was angry at the time, because those making the decisions couldn’t see what I could see, the pain, the exhaustion, the passion of this group of people. I had good advisers, Rob Gordon, Ruth Wraith, Andrew Coghlan. The value of having people one step off the pace, leading from behind cannot be underestimated. I think that’s why we were successful. Or were we? I’m not sure. There were no measures of success.

I think that this was our first “national” disaster, if you can call it that. People in each state and territory were affected, and the nation affected as a whole, publicly. It also, to my mind, was the first one where the power of the internet and email started to come into play. People across the country kept in touch with each other, easily. Which was a great thing. They were also able to compare notes on the support they were getting, and it brought into sharp relief the disjointed nature of our federation. In South Australia, you could get Victim’s Compensation payment, but nowhere else. In Victoria, you had access to support groups and information sessions, and community based psycho-social services. In New South Wales and Queensland, you were “treated” by the mental health services. You also had the Commonwealth playing a strong role, as a result of the PM being touched by the events, and giving the direction to the departments, whatever it takes. A lot of generous assistance was made available to people.

One of the more powerful memories for me was the spontaneous flower tribute on the steps of parliament house. Martin Flanagan, as always, captured it beautifully in his article in the age I recall spending an hour or so just sitting there one Sunday morning before going in the office.

I remember not getting at all upset during the first year of the Bombings. My focus was always on getting the job done. The first time I was emotional came when I was interviewed by the Australian for the first anniversary about my role etc. The interview went well, and I didn’t think too much about it until the paper came out, and I read the interview. There were only a few lines, but I burst into tears. It made me realise that I was part of all this, not a spectator.

So I guess, on this day, the 11th anniversary of the Bali Bombings, my thoughts go out to those people who were affected, and those people who helped, and particularly to my colleagues of the time, Greg, Terri, Michael, Bruce, Jess, Rob, Leah, Jan, John, Bill. We did what we could, and we learnt from it.

7 thoughts on “Bali

  1. Beautiful writing John. Such an insight. I feel sombre and connected with the anniversary after reading that and will go about my day with a small candle of reverence in the back of my mind. Thanks


    1. Thanks Claire, this one has been on my mind to write for a while, but it has taken that while to summon up the courage to write.


  2. Beautifully written. Having lost a family member during 9/11, I was surprised how the “public” nature of my “private” loss caused complication for me in terms of working though my grief. I am grateful to read the responses you had as a first responder. Thank you for sharing.


    1. Thank you too, Tamara for taking the time to write. As you would know, it can be hard to be public about these things that are so private. I know this is something that many people have spoken to me about, how funerals, generally a private affair with family and frineds suddenly become public property, and people are forced to grieve in public.


  3. Beautiful John thank you. It has added another dimension to my memories of the event and the impact on family friends.


  4. Pingback: 20 | Sastrugi

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