20th anniversary of The Palace backpackers hostel fire in Childers - Childers local Donna Duncan.Photo: Alistair Brightman
20th anniversary of The Palace backpackers hostel fire in Childers - Childers local Donna Duncan.Photo: Alistair Brightman

Memories of backpackers fire a nightmare that never ends

DONNA Duncan has had a recurring nightmare since she learned the man responsible for the Childers backpackers fire was being considered for parole.

In the dream, she is walking up the Bruce Highway near the Palace Backpackers Hostel where the horrific fire claimed 15 lives 20 years ago.

She sees the man responsible, Robert Paul Long, in the middle of the road, staring at the building as it now stands with a box of matches in his hand.

"My biggest fear is that he'll come here," she said.

Tomorrow will mark 20 years since that terrible day.

The Childers Palace Hostel Memorial portrait painting of the 15 backpacker fire victims. Picture: Contributed
The Childers Palace Hostel Memorial portrait painting of the 15 backpacker fire victims. Picture: Contributed

Donna was awakened in the early hours of morning and was told there had been a fire at the hostel.

She got dressed, parked outside the courthouse, and saw a crowd of young people, wrapped in sheets, in the main street on that cold, foggy morning.

The building was still smouldering behind them.

"They were in shock - just absolute disbelief," she said.

The Childers Cultural Centre had been recently refurbished - Donna isn't even sure it had officially reopened at the time.

But it was decided that was where the 70 survivors would go in the aftermath of the fire.

"Any of us who were involved from that first morning have felt vivid memories," Donna said.

She had been a foster parent and had helped children who had experienced all forms of trauma.

It was Donna's natural instinct to care for the young people whose lives had been shattered so far from home.

The rest of the town also wanted to help.

The Palace Backpackers on fire.
The Palace Backpackers on fire.

The cultural centre become the hub where survivors could call their families - for free thanks to then Hinkler MP Paul Neville, who made an arrangement with Telstra - where groups and individuals brought food and clothes and where the survivors could grieve.

About midmorning, chaos descended on the small township.

Media from across Australia, and soon the world, was arriving.

Donna was placed in charge of sheltering the survivors from unwanted media attention. Her main aims were to look after them and feed them.

On the first terrible night as the survivors tried to rest, she laid down and held the hand of one young woman, who became hysterical when the lights when off and the doors closed.

So, Donna decided if the lights needed to stay on and doors needed to stay open, that was how it would be.

Many of the young people were employed in the area.

Police and SES officers outside Palace Backpackers Hostel in Childers after the fire that killed 15.
Police and SES officers outside Palace Backpackers Hostel in Childers after the fire that killed 15.

Their employers approached Donna, telling her "whatever you need to do, send me the bill".

"They came to our town to work in our industry," she said.

"If it was ever going to happen it's probably a good thing it happened in Childers, because people give a damn."

It's a time Donna hopes she never has to live through again.

She has remained in touch with many of the survivors, even visiting some overseas since then.

"I would do it again, but next time I might not survive," she said.

As for Long, Donna has a simple message for the Queensland parole board that will decide whether he is ready to rejoin society.

"They should throw the key away."

Robert Paul Long ‘stood out’ among the other backpackers.
Robert Paul Long ‘stood out’ among the other backpackers.

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