Gracetown remembers horror cliff collapse that claimed nine lives

Gian De Poloni
Swellnet Dispatch

Rescuers sift through the rubble at Gracetown cliff collapse (EMA/Geoscience Australia)

Friday September 27 in 1996 began like any other day in the small Western Australian beachside community of Gracetown.

Local primary school children braved persistent rain and a frosty breeze to join a surfing carnival down at Huzza's Beach.

Helen Thompson, then 47, was trying to convince her husband, surfing instructor Lindsay Thompson, to call off the competition.

"It was a freezing cold wet day, a shocking day," she said.

"Lindsay had a bad cold and I'm trying to tell him to call it all off.

"But he wasn't going to do that. He went on and did his surf report the usual way."

It was an innocuous decision that tragically sealed his fate.

Mr Thompson and a group of other parents, teachers and students were sheltering from the rain under a large limestone overhang down on the beach.

Suddenly and without warning, a portion of the cliff face collapsed crushing to death five adults and four children.

Among the dead were local school principal Ian Bremner, 39, Madeline Wall, 35, Peter McFarlane and Lyndell Otto, both 41, and students Rebecca Morgan and Rachel Waller, both 12, Nathan Sotiriadis, 13 and Gina Iddon, 11.

'It was just a big thud'

Ms Thompson said she began to worry when she heard a barrage of emergency service vehicles race through town in the direction of the beach.

"That was like an instantaneous alarm that something had gone wrong," she said.

"We thought maybe something had happened on the road.

"The last thing you thought was a cliff collapse.

"It just rang bells and your heart just goes ... the next thing the phone was ringing and we were hearing what had happened."

She soon learnt her husband may have been trapped under the rocks with their daughter.

"My daughter Skye and her friends were going to catch the bus and were all walking up what they called the Goat Track," she said.

"They actually saw it — well, heard it more than saw it.

"It was just a big thud.

"They looked around and people that were there two seconds before just weren't there."

On the eve of the 20th anniversary of the tragic accident, Ms Thompson returned to Huzza's Beach — like she has ever year — to reunite with the family and friends of the victims and remember their loved ones.

"I think for a long while, there was this thought 'why are we still here but he's not?'" she said.

"It's very hard to come to terms with and I don't think you ever do come to terms with it, you just learn to live with it."

She thanked rescuers and emergency teams.

"Some of those people, their lives were as deeply affected as ours were," she said.

"We won't ever forget."

Deaths affected thousands in small community

Crosses mark the hilltop where a cliff collapse claimed the lives of nine people in Gracetown (ABC/Ruslan Kulski)

Tony Morgan also lost his daughter Rebecca in the cliff collapse and remembers her as a bright girl full of joy with a deep love for sport.

He said it was an extremely difficult time for his family, particularly Rebecca's two older brothers.

"My youngest son doesn't like coming down here, it just gives him the creeps," he said.

"It has affected thousands of people in the community and for such a small community too.

"You don't realise it at first, but there were 30 kids from one school that were down there on the day, so it affects them and their parents, brothers and sisters."
Mr Morgan was one of hundreds who attended a memorial event in Gracetown on Sunday afternoon.

Augusta Margaret River Shire President Ian Earl lost friends in the disaster and hopes the community will never have to bear such a profound tragedy again.

"There will be a little bit of sadness out there today but I think it's mostly a happy smiling laughing crowd out there," he said.

"It's great to see that most of the people have managed to move on, but they haven't forgotten."

© Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.


sandspit's picture
sandspit's picture
sandspit Tuesday, 27 Sep 2016 at 1:51pm

I remember this on the news at the time, what a tragedy

Clam's picture
Clam's picture
Clam Sunday, 13 Aug 2017 at 8:14am

"They actually saw it — well, heard it more than saw it.
It was just a big thud."

"The Coroner stated in his findings, that if signs warning of the dangers of the area had been posted - there would more than likely not have been loss of life."

Blowin's picture
Blowin's picture
Blowin Sunday, 13 Aug 2017 at 3:56pm

Really sad loss of life , Clam.

But the world is not a museum . Signs are visual pollution and I'm over their riduculous profusion.

Interpretive signage.

Safety signage .

Administrative signage .

Fuck it all off.

Don't get me started on coppers log fences.