Australia — Huddled under a dampened blanket as Australia’s deadly bushfires roared over her head “like a jet engine”, Sonja Parkinson was convinced she and infant son Sam would die.
Instead, the flimsy shelter saved them from the inferno that claimed at least 32 lives in their town of Kinglake, one of many stories of heroism and miraculous escapes to emerge from the country’s worst fire disaster.
“I thought we were going to die,” she told the Australian newspaper, explaining how she ran for her life as her home was engulfed.
“The two front rooms were ablaze. I couldn’t see. It was black. We went down to the creek and we hid,” she said.
A shallow puddle proved their salvation, as Parkinson doused a blanket and awaited their fate.
“This little one was so brave under the blanket,” she said.
“We had a blanket over us in the creek and we huddled with the dog and two neighbours and two lyrebirds.
“It was shallow, a summer creek, but there was just enough water, a puddle. We sat in a muddy puddle under a wet blanket and the fire went through us.”
Further to the east near Healesville, teenager Rhys Sund used a tiny tractor and trailer to save his sister Rhiannon and a group of frightened women and children from an isolated farmhouse in the path of the firestorm.
“I’m so proud of the young bloke,” the 19-year-old’s father Mark told Melbourne’s Age newspaper. “He cut down the fences in his way and went in.
“Rhys hasn’t been to bed yet. He’s been fighting the fire all night.”
Swimming pools, dams and even puddles became last-resort refuges for residents desperate to escape the flames, which sent showers of burning embers raining on homes.
“They call it ’ember attack’, those words don’t do it justice,” reported the Australian newspaper’s Gary Hughes, who narrowly escaped with his life when his home northeast of Melbourne was destroyed.
“It is a fiery hailstorm from hell driving relentlessly at you. The wind and the driving embers explore, like claws of a predator, every tiny gap in the house.”
Christine Halls and her family ran for their lives when flames bore down their Kinglake home, barely able to see in the thick smoke.
“It was just terrifying,” she said. “They say a bushfire sounds like a freight train coming, but it sounded like a freight train as big as the entire space you could see, the entire horizon.
“It was that much noise and force. The sound was incredible.”
Halls and her family survived after taking shelter in a car but many others were not so lucky, with the twisted wreckage of vehicles on the outskirts of the town yielding at least six bodies.
Victims also perished in their homes, police discovering five bodies in one Kingsville house that were so charred that officers could reportedly only tell four of the victims were children from the size of their skulls.
Bendigo resident Jill Kane’s boyfriend Michael Ryan had to do the unthinkable and leave her unconscious brother Mick on the ground because he could not carry him from his home in time to escape the firestorm.
“He’d got to him and grabbed him but couldn’t get him the last 20 or 30 metres to the road,” a devastated Kane told the Herald Sun newspaper.
Amid the tragedy there was also defiance, including 72-year-old Jean Perkins, whose Bendigo home was reduced to ashes even though her neighbour’s was still standing.
“I said a couple of prayers yesterday — ‘please keep my home Lord’ — but he wanted to take mine for some reason,” she said.