Remembering Gracetown: How life looks from the ‘outside’

To this day I am fearful of cliffs and rugged west coast beaches because of what happened at Huzzas in Gracetown, Western Australia, on Friday, September 27, 1996. Twenty-two years ago. 

After days of rain, the limestone overhang beneath which surfers had sheltered for years before heading out to the surf breaks at Huzzas or South Point, broke away and dumped more than 1400 tonnes of limestone, caprock and sand onto the beach. At the time, a group from a local primary school was sheltering from the rain while they watched a grommet surf competition being played out on the Huzzas wave. I wasn’t on the beach when the accident happened, but I was there 20 minutes later. And over the course of the afternoon I watched as the bodies of five adults and four children were dug out from the sand. It was an afternoon that caused me to confront many of the fears I had suppressed for a long time. I was caught out by how much they overwhelmed me.

Every journalist is inclined to observe life from the outside. It was something I was particularly good at. I’d developed the skill from the back pews of my childhood faith community—always watching, always questioning, never fully participating. It was from the back row that I developed an intense fear of the inside. Inside meant being accountable for your actions and your speech. It meant standing up and preaching, or reading scripture, or praying. I didn’t want to do any of these things, so being on the ‘outside’ served me well.

Good journalists position themselves at a safe distance and see things other people don’t see. They hear things other people don’t want them to hear. They interview people about hobbies such as church bell ringing, but they never pull a rope themselves; they attend fatal car accidents and take notes while family members weep and emergency crews cut bodies from wrecks; they attend council meetings and report on controversies that people actively protest. I did these things dutifully, as someone well used to observing most of life from ‘outside’. Keenly watching, but rarely participating; in dialogue with others, but never fully engaged. It was no different on the afternoon of the cliff collapse at Huzzas. I scurried onto the beach dressed in a suit and holding a notebook, but stood apart from the action as 100 people tried to figure out what had happened.

It was around 2.30 in the afternoon. It was dark early, because the bay was covered by heavy, low cloud and it was raining. I stood where a journalist typically stands—close enough to observe, but not so close that I’d be called on. Not all of the cliff had collapsed—a huge overhang remained and looked perilously close to breaking away. If it did, the volunteers would have been crushed. I held back. It was my prerogative and responsibility, as someone whose job it was to tell stories of the bravery of others. But the truth? I was terrified of being killed and so I kept my distance.

From a spot by the water, I watched the confusion and overheard snatches of conversation that told me no one quite knew what had taken place. But an odd thing happens in the early stages of a tragic incident. A sudden clarity comes over the group. There’s a change in their knowing. One moment there is faltering action and puzzled disquiet. A few moments later everyone knows what is going on and what they have to do to fix it. What I heard was that a group of kids from the Margaret River Primary School had been crushed beneath the cliff. This caused a radical shift in my attitude. A young girl my parents had fostered some years earlier, Naomi, someone I thought of as a sister, attended the school and was a surfer. I hadn’t seen her on the beach, or up in the car park, and I was suddenly convinced that she was beneath the sand. The decision to get in and help the volunteers was not premeditated. Whatever fear I had about the dangerous cliff was suddenly extinguished by a greater passion. 

So there I was, now numbered among the volunteers, beneath the cliff on top of the mound, digging sand away with my hands. I was working beside the primary school gardener, a man I had never met and who I would never see again. Suddenly, he shouted.

 ‘Shit!’

He jumped backwards. I was on my knees and suddenly saw what he had seen. I scrambled backwards too. An arm was reaching up from beneath the sand. Blue and lifeless, it was angled as if grasping for freedom. By the time we had composed ourselves and shouted for help, the hand had disappeared—back beneath the sand as the body slipped into a crevice between the boulders beneath us. Shovels were thrown aside as a crowd gathered to scoop sand away with their hands. We dug for ages. We dug so deep and displaced so much sand we reached the boulders—then had to pull the boulders away with ropes. We were digging in that one spot for an hour—but found nothing. I was dejected, exhausted, and suddenly fearful again. My heart was pounding. I became acutely aware of the cliff above us and of the futility of our efforts. And I was in no doubt that even if my sister were beneath the sand, she was dead. I didn’t want to be the one who found her body. That’s when the fear took over again, and I decided to be the journalist once more. I retreated to my vantage point on the fringes of the scene. Normal people don’t have the luxury of making the choice to be either in or out. But I did, and I made the call. I watched the rest of the afternoon unfold from a safe but distressing distance. The sky grew darker. The rain got heavier. The cold swept in from the ocean. And one by one the bodies piled up on the beach.

I came to think of that afternoon as Good Friday. It felt darker than was meteorologically probable, for one thing. The way I picture the crucifixion as I read the gospel accounts is that something so extraordinarily wrong is taking place that the cosmos can’t cope. This is how I felt at Gracetown. It was as if death and darkness were actual tandem forces, and that for one afternoon they turned all their grievous attention on a single corner of that small beach. The sky fell in upon us. The light was forced out of the bay. Clouds spilled their guts on the volunteer effort. Hope was drenched.

It was Good Friday for another reason. If Good Friday represents the crucifixion of God, as God’s solution to the human dilemma, then humanity has some questions to ask about itself. I had to face up to myself the same way. I was a coward, for one thing. And I didn’t feel enough. I witnessed the fearless determination of 100 other people pulling body after body out of the sand, and at the same time I was acutely aware that I had neither the compassion to do what they did, nor the faith. My religion died that day. In theological terms, I saw the cross of Christ and recognised that it represented judgment upon my own shitty, meaningless beliefs. In contrast, I watched Grant Snow, whose charismatic Christianity had made me uncomfortable on more than one occasion. He wedged himself between the cliff and a limestone rock to push it loose with his bare feet so that the tragedy’s sole survivor, a small girl, could be pulled free. I was jealous of his faith. I was ashamed of my own lack of it.

By nightfall, nine bodies had been laid beneath a tarpaulin just a little way down the beach. Naomi wasn’t among them. The activity on the beach settled down by about 6pm. Heavy duty diggers moved in to finish what the volunteers had begun by hand and the crowd dispersed, with extremely heavy souls. I made my way through the spattering of people who remained up in the top car park of the bay and I drove back home through the township of Margaret River. People stood in the open, weeping and holding one another. I kept my tears to myself and, when my neighbours, who were State Emergency Services volunteers, called by later to recommend that I see a counsellor, I brushed them off. I guess I believed that my emotional distance would stand me in good stead. As if to reinforce my resolve, I drove out of town the next day and didn’t return until the day before publication. Before I left, I did weep. I wept in the shower the night of the tragedy, and again the next morning. I remember clearly that I cried fairly uncontrollably, and it was the most authentic emotional experience I had ever had. But it was not primarily about sorrow. The overwhelming feeling was shame. And regret. My disconnectedness was what overwhelmed me, and the decision to run was to avoid the me that I had been confronted with on the beach.

When my report was published several days later it failed to represent the point of view of the community. It represented my perspective. It was as artful as I could make it, but it missed the community’s heart. I couldn’t admit this for a long time. It smacks of someone who doesn’t understand the pain of his community. It reports the facts, the horrors of the day, and the things no one should ever have to see. But it didn’t give voice to the community’s sorrow.

 In my fear, I chose to occupy a place distant from that sorrow. And from that place I couldn’t know the heart of the ‘other’, even as they grieved around me. I didn’t love, and so I was ignorant. Because you have to love to know. The ignorance is profoundly loud in the stories that I wrote. They describe that terrible afternoon, but they are written from the outside. By someone who had spent his life on the outside.

• Amended from a chapter of an unpublished book called Love To Know