An old photograph from my archives taken on the morning of Christmas Day 1974 after Cyclone Tracy (typhoon in Asia, hurricane in US) hit Darwin.
The strength of the cyclone’s winds is disputed because the measuring instruments were damaged. Officially it was recorded as “greater than 217 kph”, but many believe peak gusts were over 250 kph. About 70 people were killed, hundreds injured, and over 30,000 left homeless.
At around midnight, the wind started bending the windows of our house so much that it was obvious the glass would break soon, so my brother and I put a mattress in the WC (the smallest room with the smallest window), bent in the shape of an inverted ‘V’, and we sheltered under that (fortunately for my wife she was away). Within minutes the windows around the house exploded and the wind started to tear the roof away. We heard roof beams cracking, and then the kitchen started disintegrating with the sound of the cupboards and crockery breaking up adding to the horrendous cacophony of noise.
The ceiling collapsed on us, but the mattress protected us from injury, and we were soon soaked as the cyclone dumped 250 mm (10 inches) of water on us. The next few hours were the most frightening of my life. I was sure we were going to die. The cyclone continued to batter us for about 6-7 hours, but after about two hours a strange thing happened. My extreme fear dissipated, as my mind seemed to accept that I was going to die, and for most of the night I just lay there in pitch black darkness waiting to die. It’s a state of mind that can only be understood by those who have been through a similar experience. But after about six hours, the wind started easing, and realising that we hadn’t died yet, I went back to the state of fear that I had experienced hours earlier, wondering whether the next brick or sheet of roofing iron that hit us would be the one to finish us off.
When dawn broke and some light filtered in, I could see that a jagged roof beam had speared through the wall and was just inches from my neck. I had almost been decapitated – but I was one of the lucky ones.
As we extricated ourselves from under the collapsed house and stood up outside, what we saw was a sight that I will never forget for the rest of my life. As far as the eye could see, everything except a concrete water tower was destroyed or damaged. The trees were gone, power lines had been snapped like string, every roof had been blown away and many houses had disappeared completely. It looked like an atomic bomb had been dropped on the city. At first we could see no other sign of life, and I thought there must be thousands of dead people buried in the rubble. But slowly others starting appearing, some injured, many in a state of shock, but most were like us and just happy to be alive.
I’ve put another shot taken a couple of days later in the WS, and I have a few others in my Cyclone_Tracy Pbase gallery
Critiques | Translate
JPlumb (3159) 2007-06-04 5:32
Hi David, from a journalistic point of view this is very good work. Not only were you trying to survive and get your lives back together but you had the fortitude to document the event, through pictures and text. I had a look at your PBase gallery as well. Very nicely done.
ktanska (27508) 2007-06-04 7:46
I've read about this. It really has been quite devastating destroying the biggest city on a huge area of northern Australia. Telephone poles in the foreground give a good idea of the destruction and show also small details.
riclopes (35577) 2007-06-05 4:38
Olá David, most impressive story that you lived. I cannot imagine how is to be in such state of mind that you described. The image of destruction seen in these images are incredible, even if now a days we are used to see this kind of sceneries in TV. The b&w goes well with the drama and I loved to see your Pbase gallery. I would choose the photo with the type writer machine and the person at left. Thanks for sharing this experience of yours from 32 years ago.
vinicio (23423) 2007-06-07 7:37
A true disaster David, and this image is without time, reading of other disasters in the last years and the previosions for the future, a good serie of images with an also good note, compliments.
plimrn (21344) 2007-06-10 11:35
Your photo and your intensely personal story is very moving. Like ricardo, I find the photo of your brother the most powerful becuase he really does convey the sense of a stunned survivor. The people in this one are also good but seem a little more random. You say, "luckily my wife was away"; I expect she was frantic until she heard from you. I wonder if your 'near-death' experience had the same impact that people who have survived a cardiac arrest; a lack of fear of death?
I did look up Esala Perahera, it doesn't sound at all menacing here. Still, the ambient light creates a more significant mood that flash would create. HLJ, Pat
Clairedelune (4923) 2007-06-12 21:08
IN - CRE - DI - BLE! Simply incredible! Yes I know, cyclones, typhoons, hurricanes exist and can be disastrous. Many people die in these terrible circumstances. But I think it is the first time that somebody that I "know" is telling me his direct experience of it. What a bliss that you and your brother have survived! The way you describe how you lived such a misfortune is so lively that I could almost feel what you say, though surely not. It is almost surprising that your camera has survived as well and that you could use it to serve as a testimony of what happened this morning of Christmas Day. To read that "I had only half a roll of black & white film in my camera at the time.", I guess it was a difficult choice... I agree with Ricardo concerning your photo in Pbase, the one with your brother. In this case, I think the TOS don't apply.
My dear David, I'm sure such an experience has changed you. I think we can't get away without being touched, influenced. I am quite sure it has enriched, in a certain way, your life and made you the good person you are.
Thanks David for having shared with us this experience and this photo.
bhuniatrekearth (764) 2007-06-14 10:11
Nice documentary capture and a useful note.
robob (3646) 2007-06-16 9:42
Voilà une image très impressionnante. On reste toujours stupéfait devant cette force dévastatrice des cyclones. Excellente image et note !
Amicalement et à bientôt,
cyrrhus (2878) 2007-06-17 12:43
Your story is really impressive.
I am not sure in such dramatic cases that a picture is capable of rendering all the emotions you went through. Despite this, the view is very informative and it is for sure more convincing in B&W.
batalay (38773) 2007-06-18 4:06
An excellent piece of photojournalism, and a most informative note. As the aphorism offered by Sabyasachi, "Oldies are goldies." What devastation this cyclone/typhoon/hurricane has caused. In the United States some years ago, the sexist nature of picking female names for these storms has been neutered. There are now "Ernests" and "Andrews," along with "Hazels" and "Agnesses," but somehow nature has conspired to make the femine-named storms more damaging. But am I a sexist noting this!
elmec (12210) 2007-06-18 6:28
It's very sad scene! It's good too se view like this, it helps to understand things about power of nature.
Thanks for sharing.
RGatward (20086) 2007-07-05 7:28
Fascinating reportage, and a superb photojournalistic example from your archives. Tri-X, ah the nostalgia.
Polonaise (5802) 2007-07-11 15:47
It was a year of good photography, I guess ?
It was a very good year for us as well...
Windy heads full of ideas, constant erections and those incredible mini-skirts...
Oh, well...Not everywhere you went was the same...
Sobering thought to a tragic situation...
Not very dramatic, but so down to earth photography...
stay cool, Dave
noborders (1010) 2007-07-14 22:23
The sheer devastation left by the cyclone is so visible, even in the thumbnail, I had to open it to have a closer look - your accompanying note explains a lot and it is also very personal ; I love those old documentary photos with a story,
TFS and bravo,
niknik (112) 2007-07-24 22:45
I just returned from Darwin. I was very impressed with the Tracy display in the museum. Especially spending time in the sound room listening to its roar.
Your story adds a lot to to that. What an experience. Your photo really captures the destruction.
ChrisJ (113179) 2008-10-04 0:54
A stark photojournalistic type shot, with the b&w adding an archival mood. Found this shot by accident in a google search on Cyclone Tracy. It wasn't your time to go. Tfs!
- Copyright: David Astley (banyanman) (7789)
- Genre: Places
- Medium: Black & White
- Date Taken: 1974-12-25
- Categories: Event
- Camera: Ricoh TLS 401, Kodak Tri-X
- Photo Version: Original Version, Workshop
- Theme(s): Pre-digital I [view contributor(s)]
- Date Submitted: 2007-06-04 3:38