Written in the weeks after the tragedy ...
April 28, 1996: the staff at the Fox and Hounds are just a few minutes away from changing shifts. A few autumn leaves that have escaped the fastidious eye of the groundsman, punctuate the emptiness of the resort.
The coaches and private cars that crammed the Fox with life overnight, have gone. The patrons, mostly middle-aged and beyond, all cheery, full of questions, excited at the day before them. They have been breakfasted, checked-out and despatched to the Historic site, the Bush Mill, Point Puer, the derelict convict coal-mines and the countless other places of interest that draw tens of thousands of visitors to one of Australia’s premier destinations.
Three housemaids are putting the final touches to their daily chores.
They’ve been hauling pillow cases, sheets and towels to the laundry, transforming trashed rooms into models of tidiness in readiness for the next wave which will fill the resort to capacity. They relish their work. Jobs are precious on the Tasman Peninsula. Kay Gore is working the driers and stacking freshly-laundered pillowcases.
She is the wife of Les, one of two co-owners of the Fox and relief manager in the absence of Peter and Pam Kotevski, who are holidaying in Africa. The proprietors are hands-on. Everyone pitches in.
It is a glorious dav. The sun is radiant with Autumn hues. There is a lingering chill, a good conduit of sound. It is a usual day ... with unusual sounds. The sound of gunfire. Sharp cracks. Distinctly gunfire. In quick succession. It’s coming from the direction of the historic site.
“Someone’s shooting rabbits or birds,” a housemaid remarks to Kay.
“It’s a good thing we’re not out there.” Kay grins, adding the final touches to her chores for the day, “we’d get shot.”
She’s looking forward to her trip with Les, to nearby Nubeena. Looking forward to a brief escape.
Jo-anne Dias makes the place run. Receptionists do that. Adviser, counsellor, guide, barmaid, waitress, boss-ticker-offer, receptionist.
It’s 1:55pm. Just a few minutes away from leaving the frenetic behind for another day. Jo still misses the cheery face of her colleague, Lizzie Howard. Both have been exchanging shifts in Fox reception for several years now.
But Lizzie left two weeks ago. A change of routine. A change of pace.
Lizzie is working down the road. At the Historic Site. At the Broad Arrow Cafe. Within hearing distance. It’s five to two in the chilling afternoon.
Beautiful, cheery Lizzie Howard has been dead for almost ten minutes. Dead at 27. Reception telephone rings. Jo takes the call. The lives of the seven people still on duty at the Fox and Hounds are to change forever.
The urgent voice of Merren, a casual worker at the Fox and Hounds. It’s short and sharp. Someone has gone mad with a gun at the Historic Site. He’s killing people. Take cover. Jo Dias calls to Les Gore: “Come quickly!”
A police car pulls up outside. The face of local constable Paul Hyland has never been so grave. Nor has it been so welcome. A second police car stops outside the Fox and Hounds reception. A further two police officers.
Another car. A man with a woman. Les Gore meets them at the door. He sees blood, confusion, distress.
“Hang on. I’ll get stretchers.” He disappears.
Kay Gore rushes to find a box of clean sheets and pillow-cases. Both Les and Kay have been trained by St John’s ambulance. So long ago. But they remember the drill.
The woman, late twenties, is still on her feet. She is with her boyfriend and a stranger. They learn later that the stranger is a hero. He reversed his car back to the stricken couple. Their car had been hit with round after round.
The man and his girlfriend had been hit. She in the head, neck, hand and elbow. Most of her elbow is missing. He, in the shoulder. The stranger is miraculously unharmed. He had reversed his car through incessant gunfire.
To help. He then left his car to go to the aid of the woman. Fully exposed. At least six shots cracked about him. All fired from 50 metres. All missed.
He got the woman from the car, debilitated by rifle fire. The boyfriend had left his car and was making a frantic bid for safety, unaware that his companion was not following and then realising, turned to go back. The stranger got them both to his car. And then to the safety of the Fox and Hounds.
The Hotel became a hospital; its staff, nurses. There is confusion as to the sequence of events. More victims began to arrive. No one knew what would happen next, where the gunman was. Would he come to the Fox? The doors were locked and unlocked as victims and emergency workers arrived.
Les remembers the police at work. Ushering in the wounded. Talking to each other. Planning. Talking to Les. Loading their revolvers, police-training. Immediate Action drill ... ensuring that the people at the Fox were safe. Leaving in the direction of the gunfire.
“I remember thinking how organised they were. How switched on. How good to have them about. How futile their pistols would be against the gunman.”
Did they do a good job?
“My bloody oath they did! They knew what they were doing. This other woman came in. She’d been shot. She said: ‘he’s just down there in the bush!’
Les continues his recall. My interview with him is of an incident just a few weeks old. His memory is vivid. His admiration for police pragmatism and bravery in the face of the reality of a blood-bath is written across his face.
“They loaded their revolvers and went looking for them. I mean they didn’t know how many there were.”
Les too left the injured in the care of Jo, Kay, Max Joseph, the second chef.
Beth Barton and Julie Cartwright, housemaids. To care as much as they could for the injured. In the foyer,the lounge, some softly crying. One shaking uncontrollably in deep shock - being reassured by those who did not know her fate, that she would survive this.
The piercing, haunting cries of pain and anguish of a stranger cradled in the arms of compassion ... an insight into the human spirit when evil rears its terrible head. But Les Gore leaves the huddled group and goes on the offensive. “I ran upstairs. I had a rifle up there.” Les said.
From upstairs there are good vantage points, overlooking the Tasman Highway which runs nearby. A car could be spotted some hundreds of yards away. Les would find a sniper-position and stand guard in the event of a visit from a crazed gunman. A man with a twenty-two against a man with a weapon designed to pierce a rubber tree at 100 metres and kill an enemy in hiding behind it. A weapon that can induce a massive heart attack from the shock of an arm wound.
“I got the gun but I couldn’t find any bloody bullets,” Les confesses to me with disguised sheepishness.
Would he have used the weapon? Would he have shot the man?
“Bloody oath; would I ever! But it never eventuated.”
“We never saw him at any time,” Kay said. “Thank God.”
The Fox and Hounds had become a house of refuge. A total of four injured people with serious wounds and countless others, huddled together crying and in shock, were tended by staff, as they waited for an ambulance. It seemed one would never arrive.
“At the time it seemed ages. It was unbelievable how long it seemed to take. But looking back now, they were pretty quick.”
“We ripped sheets and pillow cases and pressed them into the bleed areas, applying pressure to stem the bleeding. It’s the first thing that must be done.” Kay said.
At the onset of the drama, Jo extends her supervisory role to a dimension beyond her experiences, barking orders to those indoors.
“Bring the staff in. Everybody inside.”
Knowing the full complement of staff, a quick head count visited Jo with a rush of dread.
“I was missing one. Oh God. Where’s Sharon?” I said. I rushed outside to Room 30 and found Sharon humming away while she vacuumed and I yelled at her to get out of there.
“Poor Sharon had no idea what was going on.
“Then one of the other girls, disappeared to go home. She brought her daughter back. There was no way I could talk her out of going.”
The injured at the Fox and Hounds were the first to be evacuated to Hobart by helicopter and ambulance.
Just on ninety minutes, after the alert phone call, the Fox and Hounds had dispensed with its duty to its public, the wounded had gone. Some patrons, oblivious to the tragedy played about them, had to be convinced to turnoff the in-house movie and evacuate the area.
By 3.30, as the sun cast long,chilling shadows from the towering forested hills about Port Arthur, the Fox and Hounds chapter to what would soon become known as the worst civilian massacre in modern world history, came to a close.
Early media reports would tell the world that the Fox and Hounds had become a death house ... that a mad gunman entered it and slew its occupants. This was not true. The Fox and Hounds Resort, Port Arthur, had become a refuge. It gave comfort. It saved lives.
A week beyond the pandemonium, reports were still coming in about the victims.
None who had sought refuge at the Fox and Hounds had died. During my interview with staff, Les Gore left to take a call and returned with a characteristic publican smile with news from the woman in their care that many thought would die.
“She’s going to be okay. Thank God for that,” Les said.
Visitors are trickling back to Port Arthur. Every hour or so a car pulls up on the road outside and a camera snaps an image of the Fox and Hounds.
Visitors enter and talk quietly in the dining-room and at the old English-style bar. They are subdued and almost apologetic for being there. They read the dozens of faxes, letters and condolence cards, amongst the flowers on the table in the lounge. They look sadly at the single rose on the bar and finger the handwritten words of a poem delivered just one day ago at a nearby country graveside. They want to talk about what happened. Staff want to forget. An army of counsellors are helping them to free the pain.
Talk about it. Get rid of it.
Les talks rapidly. Jo lapses into quiet moments, snaps herself back to chatty mode with each new arrival. The phone rings. She takes a booking. Gives a little smile. Let it ring. Let it keep ringing. Port Arthur needs to hear the business phones ring.
The beast has gone from Port Arthur. His legacy of grief and sadness lingers in the valleys ... the quiet country graveside of Elizabeth Howard and her 17-year-old workmate. Nicole Burgess, who died by her side at the Broad Arrow Cafe.
The yellow road markings. The ashen face of a once-innocent seaside cottage just down the road. The site of the final act of the Port Arthur incident. The quiet, almost apologetic demeanour of visitors with their unspoken gestures of loyalty to a traumatised community ... the human spirit of getting on with it is already at work.
Good is triumphing over evil.
Evil was only a visitor.
Elizabeth Jane Howard (27)
Eaglehawk Neck, Tasmania.
(Shot dead at Port Arthur…my pretty friend.)
No more should stumbling Blundstone’s tread
Near silent, sandstoned crumbling head
Whose angled groans
Amid black-watered winds
Futile puffs of lives not properly lived
Weary sentinels till resurrection:
Anguish enough rests here
Without curious hordes
Trampling sod and soul and silence
On the Island of the Dead.
No more should feigning
Of the fearful night
Whose ghosts of old
Locked in chasms of lost modernity
Occupy the chill of starry, silent, moonless night
And haunt Port Arthur’s walls…
And will they thus for eternity
For this is the residence of spirits:
Restless once, now restful
And no more should modern ghouls
Tread the dark with lanterns laughing
A calvacade of fools…
But let me visit this stark and hallowed place
As it should have always been -
I should touch their names
And speak them low with faltering breath
Unknown and known…
And my pretty friend Elizabeth.
And those that came as tortured souls
I too should touch and turn away
Cleansed of all my anger…