A FAMILY’S attempt to flee a burning home on Black Saturday failed when two men turned back to rescue a mother and child, and all four perished, the Bushfires Royal Commission heard yesterday.
Gary Bartlett and his friend Michael Real turned back to the house from the gate of the Bartletts’ property in St Andrews when they realised that Jacinta Bartlett and daughter Erryn, 6, were not behind them.
The only survivor of the family was Erryn’s sister, 12-year-old Maddison Bartlett. Maddison and another family friend, Judith Hawkins, fled 500 metres down the road to a dam, where both sheltered successfully despite Maddison’s life-threatening burns.
In parts of her statement read yesterday to the Bushfire Royal Commission, Ms Hawkins said that she and Mr Real were guests of the Bartletts on Black Saturday. They went into the house when they heard the roar of a bushfire but tried to flee when windows on the upper storey exploded inwards and an internal staircase caught fire.
Mr Bartlett said they had to get out, opened the door and then slammed it shut again. Then he said, “We’ve got to get out or we’ll die.”
Ms Hawkins said she had pulled on Mrs Bartlett’s arms and told her to get out, “but Jacinta appeared to be in shock”.
When Mr Bartlett opened the door a second time, he ran out, followed by Mr Real, Ms Hawkins and Maddison.
At the gate of the property, 30 metres from the house, Mr Bartlett stopped and asked, “Where are the others?”
Ms Hawkins reported, “I just said, ‘They wouldn’t come.’ Gary turned around to go back to them and Michael just turned around too and followed him.”
Ms Hawkins and Maddison jogged half a kilometre down the road, clutching wet hand towels to their faces to protect against smoke: “I just remember saying out loud, ‘Got to keep moving.’ ”
Fire crews found the two and poured drinking water on Maddison’s burns before lifting her into the back of a police car, which drove her to an ambulance. Ms Hawkins also sustained serious injuries.
Ms Hawkins later told police that the family had been keeping watch on smoke coming over Mount Sugarloaf, with Maddison checking websites on her laptop.
They had filled gutters with water but had not been worried about fire that day: “It was almost like they didn’t realise it would get to them.”
Friends of Mr Bartlett told police that he had planned to leave in the case of a bad fire.
The Brown family of Bald Spur Road had also planned to leave in case of fire and that afternoon had thought the Kilmore fire to be “miles away”, Adrian Brown, 33, told his father by MSN Messenger. He and his wife, Mirabelle, 30, and their three children — Eric, 8, Matthew, 7 and Brielle, 3 — died in their home.
Bald Spur residents Richard and Eileen Zann, their daughter Eva Zann and neighbour Karma Hastwell, 88, had also planned to leave the mountain in case of fire but were probably caught by surprise on Black Saturday, the inquiry heard. Their remains were found in the Zann house.
Sam Matthews, 22, died alone at St Andrews trying to defend the family home.
Hearings on the Kilmore East fire continue today.