A journalist who covered the Port Arthur massacre 20 years ago recalls the day’s horror

The Port Arthur memorial service to mark the 20th anniversary of the national tragedy. Photo: Neil Richardson.

How do you deal with the perennial images of Port Arthur? Martin Bryant giggling in court like a nervous jackal, as the names of his tiny tot victims Alannah and Madeline Mikac were read out.

The police woman unable to control her trembling hands; the 8am smoke rising from the fire Bryant lit at the Seascape cottages, and, the utter devastation on the face of Walter Mikac, as he slumped in a police car.

Sunday April 28, 1996 was another day at The Examiner office in Hobart, writing up a story. A phone call from the Launceston office spoke of a car accident at Port Arthur.

Periodic updates started mentioning fatalities and then shootings. The makeshift police command post at Taranna was like an Easter Thursday supermarket car park. Police everywhere. Arrivals of national and overseas news crews, with their white satellite dishes dotting paddocks like giant mushrooms.

There was little mobile phone coverage. I talked to the office by standing on the bonnet of a car owned by Premier Tony Rundle’s press secretary Pete Heazlewood. Politics vanished for 12 months.

We worked for 37 hours straight. We stood by the roadside on the Sunday night, stopping motorists fleeing the area and asking if they had any film of the massacre. Some did.

A giant semi-trailer housed the police negotiating team, trying to reason with a simpleton killer, who Justice Bill Cox labelled a “pathetic social miss-fit”, during sentencing. A pointless massacre. Even terrorism has a meaning.

The Salvos arrived with a hot food van. The general store nearby was compensated to trade all night.

Journalist Barry Prismall. Photo: Supplied.

Nobody slept. The next morning an ambulance with police escort took Bryant to hospital. We stood there by the road like a bizarre honour guard.

After he’d gone two buses took about 150 media on a solemn ghost tour of the death sites.

The burnt out remains of Seascape, a ute with smashed windows, parked at a bizarre angle on the road.

A bullet riddled police car, four large tarpaulins covering the blood at the old entrance to the historic site where he murdered the occupants and stole their BMW. The Fly-buys card poking from the wallet of a young female victim. Her last act on Earth.

The roadside tree where the Mikac children were gunned down with their mother broke your heart.

The miss-fit chased Alannah behind the tree and shot her in the face with a high powered rifle. The last thing she ever saw was her sister and mother murdered. You longed for a heavenly sanctuary where she could rest forever.

Months later I watched the police video of the aftermath in the Broad Arrow Cafe, on the advice of officials, because oddly enough it stopped you imagining the carnage.

Some journos who covered the massacre never recovered, and left the state.

The tragedy affected a television viewer in Melbourne, as much as a paramedic at the scene.

I remain angry with the police hierarchy. They argued they were there to apprehend the villain, not execute him.

But, during the Seascape siege, marksmen were denied several opportunities for a clean shot, as if this simpleton psychopath was about to spare any hostages, after shooting 30 at the historic site.

The memorial service at St David’s Cathedral in Hobart made everyone cry. It was like Princess Diana’s funeral. Raw sadness soaked in a deep personal grief.

Police on secondment from other states stood in the streets, sharing tears with onlookers.

I had counselling and now I hate guns, but I watched the miss-fit giggle in court and like many I initially wanted him dead. Ultimately you just had to pull out of his world.

He was a “pathetic, social miss-fit” wanting to be noticed; who often sold groceries to my relatives in New Town from the back of a van. His former mansion remains a white edifice in Clare Street.

He got the infamy he clamoured for, but never respect. We all got nervous on the streets for a time.

This article was originally published by The Examiner. See the original story here.

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