Sheltering in a cupboard with her father as fire surrounded their Steels Creek house on Black Saturday, Catie O’Neill, 14, told her dad that they would die. With the fire front taking an eternity to pass their home, Catie told her father John that they should have evacuated before the fire hit.
As embers and other detritus from the bushfire smashed into their home for about 45 minutes and oxygen started to run out, Mr O’Neill reassured his daughter that they would be OK and that he would see to it.
Mr O’Neill was right, the family of five survived and so did their house after a seven-hour battle. Mr O’Neill recalled his daughter’s anxiety and pessimism at the height of the bushfire, at yesterday’s hearings of the Bushfires Royal Commission.
He said he was a strong supporter of the prepare-stay-and-defend policy in appropriate circumstances and said he vehemently opposed “forced evacuations”, which he called “nanny state” interference.
As the family sheltered inside, Mr O’Neill likened the noise of embers hitting the house to a massive plague of locusts. “The windows and the house itself were being beaten really hard. The noise was unbelievable. There were big trees crashing around us. Everything was progressively going up around us,” he said.
Earlier, he witnessed the fire march to his house, making the noise of 10 to 20 steam trains.
“It was rumbling towards us. And my last memory of it before we got into the house was just hearing this horrible, horrible, red, black, rolling (thing) coming at you. That was the head of the fire coming. And when it hit, it was just like a tornado, it was like a little hurricane. Trees just were being pulled into it, they weren’t falling, they were being pushed,” he said.
Like many, the O’Neills had a fire plan, were well prepared, kept the property tidy and had a significant fire fighting armoury, including numerous concrete and steel tanks full of rainwater around the 32-hectare property.
But the fire, and a lack of clear information describing how close it was, undermined Mr O’Neill’s plans to soak the house and its surrounds.
“We had plenty of water, we could pump for two hours. We got to pump for 10 or 15 minutes, that was it. We might have saved some more buildings if we could have been able to pump a bit more,” he said.
“I think the thing that surprised us the most was the smoke. Regardless of what (wife) Adrienne had done to block the bottom of all the doors with wet towels and all that sort of stuff, the house immediately filled with thick smoke. And it was instant, and it was choking and the breathing was difficult.”
In a kneeling position to see what was happening outside, while the rest of the family lay flat on the floor, Mr O’Neill saw a neighbour’s house go up in flames within a minute of them taking shelter inside. “It didn’t explode, it just got picked up into a ball of sparks,” he said.
Mr O’Neill said his children had definitely suffered an emotional impact from staying and defending the property. “My son John said to me (that) he wouldn’t stay again, but then again, it’s pretty raw at the moment. I don’t know, I think that if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger,” he said.
While the O’Neill family survived, some of their neighbours did not. Royal commissioner Bernie Teague told yesterday’s hearing that more than 20 children were killed in the Black Saturday fires.