Oral history: Cyclone Tracy

On the night of Christmas Eve, and into the early hours of Christmas Day in 1974, Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory, was struck by Cyclone Tracy. 

That morning, Australia woke to the news that the city had been nearly obliterated, and the story of modern Australia's biggest peace-time disaster began to unfold.

In 1986, the Oral History Unit of the Northern Territory Archives Service (NTAS) began a project to collect, for permanent preservation, interviews about the experiences of some of the people of Darwin who lived through the cyclone. 

Around one hundred interviews in the oral history collections at the archives deal with that terrible night, and its long aftermath. Four of these records are represented in the extracts below.

Several common aspects of what can happen at the height of a cyclone of this magnitude are demonstrated in these interviews. A cyclone is a giant circular swirl of wind, and can contain an absolutely still, eerie, calm 'dead centre'.

The still eye of a cyclone can be kilometres wide, and is very misleading. 

As the storm moves over the face of the planet, roaring winds give way to stillness within the eye. But the edge of this centre is an almost solid wall of screaming wind. As it passes over the ground, it strikes stationary objects with extraordinary ferocity, transforming absolute calm back to raging tempest in moments. 

Not only this, but it comes from a different direction to the first part of the storm, and structures already weakened from one direction are hit suddenly from another side.

Many Darwin homes, being in the monsoon tropics, are elevated on high piers to help with ventilation. Even if they were not blown off their supports, severe damage and death or injury often resulted from heavy debris, flying through the air with exceptional force after other structures in the neighbourhood disintegrated.

Ted D'Ambrosio

Play audio file (490kb sound file) (489.5 kb) [Ted D'Ambrosio and his family sheltered in their car, parked in the car-port under their house.]

''It was like Hades - you know, it just came and went whoof! And then, you could hear the houses smashing up and hitting things and so forth, and it was just absolutely terrible. It was something I never wish to go through again.

When the wind changed, a coconut tree fell on one edge of the roof, and that's what started the roof peeling right off, and it just peeled - - and you could hear the houses - - The noise was so great, and the wind was so devastating, and there was the screaming of people and so forth, that it was just something out of a - - horror movie, that's about all. You didn't know what to do.

But we kept fairly calm. And then I saw the house starting to lift off the piers. It was only lifting an inch or so, but I thought: 'well, if this continues, well it's going to lift off, and then the car-port will come right down on top of us.'

The house next-door, the whole lot of that appeared to slide, and come over our way; it just took off, and half the house, except for the floor-boards, came on top of us and the trees held us from being crushed. And we were there for five hours, actually.''

Beth Harvey

Play audio file(243kb sound file) (242.5 kb)

''The nearest thing I could say, when the initial wind came, after the calm, it was like a steam train or something, running into the house. It was an incredible shock. It felt as though the house lifted up and sat down again.

It was the most incredible bang. I've never been hit by a steam train, but, you know - - that's the sort of sense of power it was, that one of those great, big steam trains just ramming into something. It was an incredible - - power. I - - It was just unbelievable.''

Barbara James

Play audio file (467kb sound file) (466.9 kb)

''And at this stage, the sounds outside started to become a bit frightening.

It was something between a roar and a scream. I mean sort of different sounds. And the other impression I had was that the lightning was sort of a greenish colour, a greenish glow.

Then we heard this noise, and he said: 'Oh, another tree's gone.' And I said: 'That wasn't the tree, that's the roof.' And we looked up, and the solar hot-water system fell through. But it seemed to us later that that's when the house started to disintegrate - the solar hot-water system blew off, or fell through. And then the roof went, and it was just sort of surrealistic.

Oh, well, what happened was: Pearl and I were sitting under the piano, and the piano, of course, as soon as the walls started to disintegrate, the piano just started to topple like a thimble. And we walked down the corridor as the rest of the house blew away.

But I don't remember being gripped with panic or anything. I just remember thinking: 'We might die.'''

Howard Truran

Play audio file (459kb sound file) (458.6 kb)

''And while we were laying there, all of a sudden, through the actual ceiling, came this thirty-foot piece of timber - must have been a piece of six by two inches.

And it had snapped off somewhere, over in another building somewhere, and it came screaming through the sky at about two hundred mile an hour; and it had a long, tapered point on it. And it came through our ceiling just like a javelin, and it was pointing straight at us, about four foot from where we were laying.

And one of the worst things: we had glass-beaded curtains hanging down between the kitchen - - they were whipping at some fantastic speed, like stock-whips. And these were whipping like this, not far from us. If you had have got hit with them, they would have cut you to pieces; it would have been like being hit with about twenty glass stock whips. And they took all the paint off the wall, and started to gouge into the wood of the wall. The noise of that was - - I'll never forget it.''

Last updated: 11 October 2017