Merrilyn Sowell (nee Eldred)

Summer that year in the Blue Mountains was one of the hottest, driest and windiest on record. Fires raged on many fronts: in the Jamison, Burragorang and Kanimbla valleys, at Mount Hay, and across the plateau at Mount Wilson. The smell of burning Blue Gums filled the air for weeks before the conflagration that consumed so many lives and properties and roared through in December 1957.

On the day it happened, just before Christmas, and just before school broke up for the year, even the cicadas stopped singing. At the end of my final year at Leura Primary, I went home at lunchtime to ask if I could play with my friend, Marion, after school, blissfully unaware of the approaching danger as I walked down Victory Lane.

We were used to bushfires; they happened regularly in summer and were part of mountain life. Only the week before there was a fire on the vacant block opposite our home, Park End, which drew a small crowd of onlookers that didn’t disperse until the fire brigade had put the fire out. My sangfroid deserted me as I entered the house and saw Mum, Nana and Uncle Bert rushing around frantically. Mum yelled that we must leave immediately and to get into Bert’s car. While Nana held baby Jayne and Mum clutched her wooden jewellery box, Bert made a last ditch, single-handed effort to lift Dad’s new grand piano. He knew how important it was to my father, who was away at work in Sydney.

Wind raged and a loud roaring sound filled our ears as we ran to the car. Fire had begun to devour the huge radiata pine trees that grew along one side of the property and had started licking at the cypress hedges at the front where we needed to make our escape. We flew down the drive through the wrought iron gates and up Victory Lane. The Chateau Napier at the top of the hill was well alight as we sped past.

Another friend, Alexis, lived there. Bert drove down Leura Mall past burning shops, past The Ritz, a boutique hotel in those days, and turned off onto Cliff Drive just before Gordon Falls. Heavy smoke blotted out the landscape as he steered wildly around the bends in a desperate race to outrun the flames that were leaping and crackling through the bush towards us, sucking the oxygen from the air.

My mother was as white as a sheet when we arrived at my father and uncle’s newsagency in Katoomba Street, Katoomba, where we finally met up with my other two sisters, Jannine and Pam, and brother Michael. Bad news travels fast and Dad arrived from Sydney later that afternoon. He gathered us to him and said, ‘The only thing that matters is we are all together and safe’.

Our friends, the Sumner family, kindly put us up in their Katoomba guesthouse, The Cecil, that night. Another friend of my father lent us his holiday house in Craigend Street, Leura, until we resettled in Railway Parade. Fire that intense is like an inferno; it leaves little in its wake but ash and charred, crumbling ruins.

When we returned to Park End the next day, miraculously my brother’s pedal car, although charred, was still intact. The ashes gave up an odd shaped clump of silver that turned out to be the remains of threepenny and sixpenny coins my mother kept in a glass milk bottle. She also found broken fragments from her treasured miniature Limoges porcelain. Photographs, prizes, trophies, awards my parents had won, important documents… all vaporized. Marion lost her home too, and so did Alexis. Leura Primary School had become a smouldering ruin.

Many lives were left shattered that day. My parents soon made a fresh start and slowly established a new life for us over ensuing years, before going to early graves.