Twenty years ago this month, 35 people were killed by Martin Bryant in Port Arthur. Photo / Supplied
It has been almost 20 years since the Port Arthur massacre.
On 28 April 1996 Martin Bryant went on a killing spree, murdering 35 people and wounding another 23 at Port Arthur, a former prison colony in Tasmania.
Among the dead was Nanette Mikac and her two young daughters Madeline, 3, and Alannah, 6. They were running away from Bryant, who had just gunned down a number of people at the historic site in the cafe, gift shop and carpark.
Mrs Mikac was carrying Madeline and Alannah was running ahead. Bryant forced Mrs Mikac to her knees and as she pleaded for him not to hurt her babies he shot her in the head. He then shot Madeline twice and chased ALannah to her hiding place behind a tree and fired a single shot into her neck.
To mark the 20 year anniversary of the death of his wife and daughters, Walter Mikac penned a first person account of that terrible day and how the massacre has changed his life.
The account ran in Sunday Style today.
“On the day of the shooting, I’d sponsored a golf tournament, so I went to play. I suggested Nanette have a day out with the girls at Port Arthur – she knew it well, as she worked there,” Mr Mikac wrote in the piece published on News.com.au.
“We heard the gunshots from the course. ‘They must be having a re-enactment,’ someone said. After the game, a young couple ran into the clubhouse. ‘People have been shot at the historic site,’ they cried.”
Mr Mikac said a shooting “didn’t seem possible” and he headed over to find out what was happening.
“The roads were closed, so I went home to see if Nanette and the girls were there. When I found the house empty, alarm bells rang,” he wrote.
“Not long after, our family friend and local GP, Dr Pam Ireland, came and told me what had happened. She took me to the site, insisted the police let us through, and took me to see my family. For acceptance, that was very important. It meant there was no need for someone to describe or hide the details. I was able to hold each of them. The police didn’t cope with that very well, but Pam’s insistence made that happen.”
The day after the massacre was Mr Mikac’s 34th birthday.
“At the funeral I just kept thinking of the love I’d received from Nanette and my children. They weren’t alive but I wanted to keep their spirit alive. I wanted to remind people not to get sidetracked with work and things we think are important, like sweeping the driveway, but instead, to cherish the time they had with their children and family. I truly believe the power of love and creation will always triumph over the power of destruction and revenge,” he wrote.
“When everything you care about is gone, it’s hard to know what to do. There certainly wasn’t any point in going to work. Sleep didn’t come easily and I took a lot of anger out on my body. I’d run and cycle for hours. Friends disappeared, and there were plenty of young families who were friends with our children and we never heard from them again. People were worried about saying the wrong thing.
The remains at the Seascape Cottage continue to smolder Monday April 29, 1996, near Port Arthur. The cottage is where Bryant held several people hostage. Photo / AP
Mr Mikac said after the funerals he focussed on “trying to get through each minute”.
“I couldn’t understand what allowed someone to kill that many people without being stopped,” he wrote.
He sent a letter to then-Prime Minister John Howard who contacted him the next day asking if he could pass on Mr Mikac’s message at an upcoming a police ministers’ meeting where he hoped to address changing Australia’s gun laws.
“The resulting gun reforms were a big thing and I hope Australians never allow those laws to be changed; I’m currently organising a petition to make sure they don’t,” Mr Mikac said.
“We don’t want a gun culture like the States. We don’t need it. Prior to Port Arthur there’d been 11 mass shootings here in 10 years. Since that legislation we haven’t had one and it’s made Australia safer for our children.”
Alongside his campaigning, Mr Mikac spent time away from Australia in a bid to rebuild his life.
“Going overseas to Europe and Africa helped my recovery. No one knew me. If I looked morose it didn’t matter, and having that time where there was no expectation from anyone was really important,” he wrote in today’s piece.
He also talked about writing a book about his tragedy.
“That was hard, too, especially recalling the emotions and the court case. I never refer to the gunman by name,” he said.
“Apparently when he stopped in front of Nanette, she pleaded with him not to hurt her babies. He doesn’t deserve to be remembered in the same context as her, or any of the courageous people who went through it. He doesn’t deserve notoriety. He just deserves to sit in that cell for the rest of his life.”
An unidentified man who lost three members of his family to a lone gunman’s Sunday killing spree, sits in a police car at a temporary police headquarters. Photo / AP
A year after the massacre Mr Mikac also set up a foundation to honour his daughters.
“At the memorial service a year later, I felt vulnerable. I carried irises because they were Nanette’s favourite flower, and I wore Alannah and Madeline’s hair bands around my wrist and carried their teddy bears,” he wrote.
“By this time, I’d received a letter from a man named Dr Phil West. He said he had two daughters the same age as Alannah and Madeline and really felt for me. He suggested I set up a foundation in their names. I guess people saw the photos of me at the service and got on board. In the 19 years since, we’ve developed a range of incredible programs, devised by experts who do everything from supporting children who’ve been the victims of violence, to preventing bullying.
The Alannah and Madeline Foundation has helped 1.5 million children and Princess Mary of Denmark is an ambassador.
“We’ve provided comforting buddy bags [containing pyjamas and teddies] to more than 40,000 children fleeing violence. Our eSmart program is now in one in three schools and libraries, and educates parents and children about cyber safety,” he explained.
“We’ve helped 1.5 million children. It’s awesome. The first generation of kids we supported have now become ambassadors themselves. I met a couple of brothers we’d helped a couple of years ago and I couldn’t stop hugging them. We’d enabled them to stay together, providing counselling and school fees, and I was so happy their lives had been restored to some normality after the trauma of what they’d seen.”
Mr Mikac has since remarried and he and wife Kim welcomed a daughter Isabella in 2001.
“The day I discovered we were having her was brilliant, and I’ve been able to experience some of the events I wasn’t able to with Alannah and Madeline. I’ve always told her about her big sisters. She’s visited the cemetery with me and in December 2014, aged 13, she walked the Kokoda Track with me for the foundation. It was the most humbling thing I’ve done in my life, especially doing it with Isabella,” he said.
He has no intention of going back to Port Arthur this year for the anniversary.
“I went the day before the first anniversary for some quiet private time, and the next day a photo of me at the site appeared on the front page of the Hobart Mercury. I don’t want to put myself in that situation again,” he said.
“To have Alannah and Madeline remembered with their foundation, to do public speaking to help others coping with trauma, to continue speaking about gun laws, that is what’s important now.”