Marjorie Mercer (nee Spargo)

In 1957, I was a general trainee nurse at the Blue Mountains District Anzac Memorial Hospital, Katoomba when the fires occurred. I recall that spring season was particularly warm and we were bothered by excessive swarms of flies.

At the time I recorded the following events in my diary. “The bushfire season had begun. It didn’t mean much to us as we hadn’t been affected. The reports weren’t grim, mainly just bushland burning. For weeks we had watched a long line of smoke rising far away to the north of the Hospital, then the tragedy came which was only to be the beginning. The police brought in four bodies of young boys who had been trapped in the blaze.

For us, the next few days passed uneventfully until the fire broke out over the nearest ridge of hills. The morning of that day had been calm and the weather was hot and sticky. The flies had begun their ceaseless buzzing early as usual. It was December 2 and I was on duty that day in the private wing.

During my lunch break (about 1pm) one of my senior nurses called me to the upstairs balcony of the nurses home where I found a number of the nursing staff had gathered watching the ever approaching fire. From our vantage point we saw three weatherboard homes burnt to the ground in a matter of minutes. People were running into the street, having seen their homes destroyed before their eyes.

We returned back on duty knowing it was a matter of time before the hospital could also be in danger. From the windows of the wards, we could see nothing but clouds of thick grey smoke and we did our best to re-assure our patients. Within half an hour every able bodied person including Matron Taylor, doctors, and nursing and domestic staff were out with buckets and hoses. By 2.30pm the fire was blazing behind the nurses home with flames reaching, what I estimated to be, over 50 feet.

The big fire hose from inside the hall had been taken out and many of us held it, directing it towards the fire front. However it was full of holes and we got a drenching with every spurt of water, so it was back to buckets. Our eyes were sore from the smoke and flying debris and found some relief by using cold wet gauze masks.

After a while the smoke and fire began to die down and the men of the volunteer fire brigade who had worked tirelessly, were called away to fight the next fire. A local tourist company brought in their buses for evacuation of the patients, which fortunately we did not have to use. Then the casualties began to arrive by ambulance, taxis and cars.

From a nursing home in Leura, we admitted its aged patients. The drivers of various vehicles carried the old folk into the wards. Nurses were kept busy with new admissions and in casualty, dressing burns and directing people looking for lost relatives. Most staff remained on duty that afternoon to help with the extra workload due to the influx of patients.

Incredibly, by about 5.00pm most of the normal routine of the hospital was functioning again. Later that day word came through of the devastation of Leura, the loss of the Chateau Napier, the Baptist and Presbyterian Churches, and the shops in The Mall. By nightfall, we scanned the horizon for any further outbreaks and there were still great glows of fire in the night sky on the surrounding mountains.

Then the hospital lights failed. The auxiliary plant included. I sat in my room in the dark watching the skyline and thinking over the day’s events. The day the Hospital could have been burnt down, as it had come so close.

Now it was over, a day that would remain in my memory forever.