Forty years on from Cyclone Tracy’s devastation, Mariana Gatis recalls the tragedy that flattened Australia’s northern-most capital city.
Clutching her daughters Nectaria and Poppy, three and 14 months respectively, she was en route to Sydney as part of a mass evacuation of the city’s survivors, when her photo was innocuously taken and unbeknownst to her would become one forever entrenched with the disaster.
She shares the story, that still lives with her to this day, with Neos Kosmos.
“We all waited for Cyclone Tracy but we were all unprepared, we didn’t even know what the cyclone meant and we got all together, the whole family just before the cyclone on the 24th of December. They were talking about it from the 22nd of December, that this was coming, but because of its strength all the radars broke and they didn’t know anything about it after that, but they knew it was heading towards us.”
At approximately 11.00 pm on Christmas Eve 1974, as Mariana prepared for midnight mass, the local Greek Orthodox priest appeared on television, advising people to stay home with their families before the inevitable hit. She and her husband took their measle-stricken daughters to her sister’s house which was close by. There they gathered as many necessities as they could – warm blankets, prepared milk, bags full of clothes – and sat by as the wind starting howling at around midnight.
“It was raining right through, the kids were sleeping, my husband and I were holding the glass door of the house because we were trying to stop it from shattering. All of a sudden the glass starting cracking, and my husband said ‘we better get down’, so we grabbed the kids from their beds and we went downstairs to where my sister had a granny flat with a bathroom.
“We went under the flat and barricaded in with mattresses, there were four kids and five adults under there. Upstairs was wiped out. We stayed there in the cold and really awful state, which carried on until 4.00-5.00 am, the water and the howling of the wind, it was awful.”
Debris restricted their movements the following morning. Mariana explains as people were promptly clearing the roads, at the first opportunity she and her husband inspected the state of their own property. Aside from slight structural damage and heavy flooding, the house survived. But with no power and water, and after two days in near solitude, broadcasted messages were advising of evacuations out of Darwin in an effort to prevent the onset of diseases.
“On the way to the airport, that’s where the photo was taken. I was actually stressed and in fear of the diseases that they were talking about, we already had sick children, we didn’t need anything else. My aim was to get out of Darwin, so I was stressed when the photo was taken. I saw it a few weeks later.”
Mariana flew to Sydney with her daughters, where her husband had relatives. There she found refuge in Callan Park Hospital, in a former psychiatric ward where they were given accommodation, with a bed and a shower, until she reached out to her husband’s family, where they remained until February, 1975.
On her return to Darwin she discovered the photo that would go on to make her one of the many faces of the tragedy.
“Everyone was telling me … I hadn’t seen it, I was surprised. People were collecting money in my name, for Darwin, they used my photo for this.”
Her daughter Nectaria doesn’t recall much from the events but she does remember playing in the debris left behind when they first returned to Darwin.
“When we got back I remember going out and playing, because some of those properties had cleared because it was all about moving the bodies and debris and stuff, the only image I remember, there was cleared land a couple of blocks down and we would play there, like in a bath tub that was randomly sitting there or was full of water.”
She has had her own experiences of notoriety from the photo, including at a local bar.
“After work we went to a bar in town for birthday drinks and it had all these photos of Cyclone Tracy and sure enough there was one of me, my sister and my mum and I thought ‘OK’. And that’s when I walked up to the barman and said ‘you owe us free drinks, you’ve got to pay us for something, you’re advertising our photo’. And he did.”
The photo has been used in subsequent insurance campaigns with the Northern Territory’s TIO.
And despite four decades passing since Tracy hit, the memory of the tragic events of 1974 still finds a way back into their lives.
“To this day every time I hear about a cyclone I still panic, I have my first aid kit ready all the time. The moments are still there, I can’t get them out of my mind, and whenever there is a warning on the television I ring them to ask them where it is,” Mariana says.