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Tuesday, 26 June 2001
Page: 28629

Mr NEVILLE (10:45 PM) —I would like to share with you and the House a sad but nonetheless inspiring event that took place in my electorate last Saturday. It was one year since the horrific Palace Hotel backpackers fire that took place in the town of Childers. On 23 June last year, 15 vibrant backpackers lost their lives in a horrendous blaze; 69 escaped but with physical and emotional scars. It was one of those seminal events which brings the nation to a halt. It drew the attention of the world's press to the full scale of the disaster and to a mourning international community.

The story of so many young lives so tragically lost resonated around the world. At the time, the community of Childers, so ably led by Mayor Bill Trevor, responded magnificently to the needs of families of the deceased and to the welfare of the young and deeply scarred survivors. Stories of generosity and self-sacrifice have become local legend.

For 14 consecutive days and nights the Childers Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, assisted by service clubs and welfare groups, ran a kitchen for the young survivors, the firefighters, the emergency personnel, the diplomatic corps and particularly the families of the victims. Welfare organisations provided clothing for the survivors, many of whom escaped with only their night attire.

On Saturday, many of those caught up in the sad events returned to the scene, 12 months on, to reflect, to pray, to commemorate and, hopefully, to move on. Several hundred local residents and visitors packed the Childers Cultural Centre at dusk for a moving service led by Dr Tim Lloyd-Morgan. As ever, Nancy Calder showed her organising skills in bringing the event together. Wreaths adorned a black cross on centre stage. In the course of the service 15 candles were lit, one for each of the young people lost in the terrifying inferno. A handful of the survivors returned to Childers to commemorate, to remember their friends and to make contact again with their companions and the families that hosted them after the tragedy.

The mood was certainly sombre but not maudlin; to say that it was gut-wrenchingly sad would be an understatement. Clergy, councillors, emergency service personnel, state government minister Nita Cunningham and Mike Reynolds attended along with state parliamentary colleague Trevor Strong. Also present was the Irish Ambassador Richard O'Brien; the British Consul General, Stephen Hiscock; and the Acting Dutch Ambassador, Joost Dirkzwager. It fell to me to read the Prime Minister's personal message, in which he pointed out that `the loss of young lives cut short is the hardest to bear'. He went on to say:

The courage and comradeship shown by the survivors and the open-hearted character of the people of Childers has ensured that their grief was, and is, shared and echoed here.

To the haunting strains of Finlandia and the hymn Be still my soul, the congregation was invited to reflect and to move on. Interestingly, 23 young survivors also met in London the same night to remember their friends. Prior to the memorial service, the mayor chaired a press conference at the Childers library, where it was my pleasant duty to announce a federal government grant of $412,500 and to confirm an earlier grant by the Prime Minister of $50,000. This was in addition to $240,000 from the state government and $29,000 from the British government.

The money will go towards the restoration of the backpackers lodge as an art gallery and tourist information centre but, most importantly, a memorial room to commemorate the place where these young people died and to record the names and the portraits of the `Palace 15'. These will be included in a mural recording the red soil, the green crops and the rolling hills of Childers, where the backpackers worked as part of their final Australian holiday experience. Their portraits will be worked into the mural. A new backpackers lodge will be built immediately behind the old building, with a connection through the original hostel to the main street. This will remove an ugly scar from the Childers streetscape, restore a magnificent old building, enrich the cultural experience of the community and, most importantly, record for future generations the names of those we lost and those who survived. As John Anderson said to me—I repeated it in Childers on Saturday and I repeat it again tonight—`Healing takes time and effort.' The restoration of this beautiful building to its original grandeur will be part of that healing.