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Breaking The Silence After The Bali Bombings

Where were you when you heard about the Bali Bombings? Three Australians share their story.

12/10/2016 6:09 AM AEDT | Updated 12/10/2016 9:13 AM AEDT
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Beawiharta Beawiharta / Reuters
Eighty-eight Australians were among the 202 people killed in the attacks on Sari Club and Paddy's Bar on this day, 14 years ago.

The emergency department staff thought he could be crazy. A man had walked into Royal Darwin Hospital saying he'd just arrived from Bali, where something terrible happened. It was 7am on a Sunday. He had bruises and burns on his body. He said Australians were dead and injured. The team called general manager Len Notaras.

"I was told we had a chap who was telling a chilling tale of carnage and disaster in Bali," Notaras told The Huffington Post Australia.

"Now the staff were saying, 'Look, look we don't actually know how true this is'. They didn't know whether this fellow should be scheduled to the medical facility or to treat his story as real. We decided to listen."

AP Photo / Fairfax Media
The Sari Club blazes after a bomb detonates in 2002.

In this time before Twitter and instant messages, one man was the sole harbinger of what was to come. He said he'd gone to The Sari Club where a large bomb had exploded, and that he tried to get into a medical facility to treat his wounds, but they were all overrun. He made it out on the final passenger aircraft of the evening and went straight to hospital.

Not far from the hospital in Darwin, a newly accredited surgeon was doing what most 30-somethings do in Darwin on a Saturday night.

"I was at a bar having a drink much like what the Australians in Bali were doing," David Read told The Huffington Post Australia.

At that stage it was very much the fog of war.Surgeon David Read

By the next day, word had spread of some kind of explosion, and being an Army Reservist, Read put on his uniform and mustered at the air force base.

"At that stage it was very much the fog of war," Read said.

"We were getting reports of a handful of people critically injured but that number kept escalating and escalating."

Little did he know he'd be operating on victims in the field at the Denpasar airport in a matter of hours.

Fairfax Media / Glenn Campbell
David Read passed his surgical exams three years before the first Bali Bombings.

In Perth, emergency nurse Angela Jackson caught word of the disaster on the morning shift. Her brother-in-law, nieces and nephews were in Bali. It hit home immediately.

"Obviously the people of Perth go on holidays in Bali quite a lot and we were getting calls from staff on holidays saying two bombs had exploded the night before," Jackson said.

"We figured out pretty quickly our family was somehow affected."

The HUffingotn Post Australia / Emily Verdouw
Angela Jackson was at work when she realised her family was involved in the 2002 Bali Bombings.

Notaras was called into a meeting with the chief minister, the police commissioner and the director general of health at Parliament House.

"All of these folks sat around a very big table and I sat off to one side as I was the least important person there," he said.

Notaras had a wealth of experience. He originally switched his studies from military history to medicine because he was following a "young lady I particularly fancied", and had gone on to become a pediatrician, instrumental in rebuilding a hospital after the Newcastle earthquake. He sat patiently.

"It was very Monty Python," Notaras said.

"Someone at the table said 'I think something terrible's happened in Bali' and they looked around to me. I said, 'Yes, I think so', and then they went into a huddle and said, 'Len says something terrible's happened in Bali'.

"Then they turned to me and said, 'Should we do something?'. I said, 'Yes' and they went back into the huddle and said, 'Len thinks we should do something'.

The HUffingotn Post Australia / Emily Verdouw
Len Notaras made the call to make Darwin Royal Hospital the centre for injured people to arrive.

"It's funny, it's quite true, they turned to me and said, 'What should we do?'.

"I was thinking pretty quickly at that stage, and I said that we'd already got the hospital up and running in the event of more people arriving. My proposal was we make Royal Darwin Hospital a platform for receiving critically injured people, to help to resuscitate them, then move them appropriately around the country.

"The huddle occurred again and they said 'What do you think we should do now?'. I said I thought we should tell the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister and they said, 'How do we do that on a Sunday afternoon?'

"I said 'leave it with me'."

This decision to bring the critically injured to Darwin sparked a chain reaction that created a world-class emergency response centre that's gone on to save thousands of lives around the world.

Surgeon Read was on the first aircraft into Bali. "We were taxied out to the hospital where we encountered complete pandemonium," Read said.

Reuters Photographer / Reuters
Wards were fill at Denpasar Hospital still on October 13, 2002.

"It was quite clear to us that setting up and working in Samar Hospital was not appropriate and not controllable so we made the decision to evacuate the casualties at the airport and set up a casualty clearing station.

"There, for six of the longest hours of my life, I started caring for, and in some circumstances operating on, victims of the Bali Bombing.

The National Critical Care And Trauma Response Centre
Casualties were taken to the airport while a military aircraft was prepared.

"It had been a while since a military surgeon operated in the field like that but at that stage, I was there, I had an anesthetist intensivist who was capable, we had the instruments and we knew we were going to be in that area for several hours so there didn't seem to be any sense of waiting.

"We hooked in when we got in there."

What followed was the biggest medical evacuation since the Vietnam War, and Read was on a plane with casualties headed for Darwin.

The National Critical Care And Trauma Response Centre
Read tends to a patient on the back of a Hercules C-130.

"I find it difficult to give it justice to describe what it was like in the back of that aircraft," Read said.

"The patients were stacked three or four high on their stretchers. It smelled of burnt flesh, somebody had Bali belly, so it smelled like that as well and it was hot. It was terrible. I kept thinking, 'Who would do this to Australians?' It wasn't in our psyche to have something like this happen to us. But we got them all back to the Royal Darwin Hospital.

"They were given a chance."

David Read
A photo Read took in the back of the C-130 Hercules flight from Denpassar Airport to Darwin.

Back in Perth, Jackson was still working when she heard what she feared.

"My brother-in-law was there at The Sari Club with his children," Jackson said.

"To be honest, I wanted to stay and work because I wanted to have some information, and we actually didn't know whether they were involved, as my niece was only 14 at the time and so I thought she's not going to be in The Sari Club, but I think at the time the Fremantle Dockers were up there and the girls wanted to go see them.

"They had heard they were going to be in The Sari Club so they were in the beer garden. They were probably only there 10 minutes when the bomb went off. My brother-in-law was killed and my niece was badly burned."

Craig Abraham / Fairfax Media
Shoes found at the remains of The Sari Club are placed by a shrine in October 2002.

"People went to send me home but I was saying no. This is my job; it's what I trained for."

In the aftermath of the Bali Bombings, Notaras went on to help create and lead Australia's National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre, that is now prepared for tragedies like the bombings.

The centre has a transportable field hospital and more than 600 highly trained doctors, surgeons, nurses and logisticians ready to deploy at a moment's notice.

The centre has also this month been tipped to be awarded the World Health Organisation's highest level of accreditation for a centre of its kind, making it one of four in the world.

Read's in-field surgical techniques that he used in Bali have been cited in best-practice training manuals and he's now the director of trauma burns surgery at the centre.

Craig Abraham / Fairfax Media
Royal Darwin Hospital's response to the Bali Bombings showed the Federal Government the value of having a team ready to respond to disasters at home and around the world.

Jackson went on to study a masters in public health and an an international diploma of humanitarian assistance. Now when a disaster happens around the world, there's a good chance she and her husband will be called to deploy.

As for her niece, after spending her 15th birthday in hospital recovering from injuries sustained in Bali, she has gone on to become an emergency department nurse.

"For me I think I have sought out special skills," Jackson said.

"I really love going and helping people so I've folded my career to do that — I'm an emergency nurse, a midwife, I have a masters in public health and I've done that deliberately because I want to learn the skills to be able to go and help.

"You see terrible things on deployment every day but you get to a point in your career where you think if I'm not here, who else will do it.

"I'm privileged to be the person who gets to help."

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