15 YEARS ON: Former Isis Shire mayor Bill Trevor, OAM, takes time to reflect at The Palace Memorial, erected after the backpacker tragedy in 2000.
15 YEARS ON: Former Isis Shire mayor Bill Trevor, OAM, takes time to reflect at The Palace Memorial, erected after the backpacker tragedy in 2000. Ashley Clark

15 years on, Childers tragedy brings tears for ex-mayor

THE haunting image of young, ashen-faced backpackers sitting on Churchill St, draped in blankets gazing up at the remnants of the Palace Backpacker Hostel is one that will remain with Bill Trevor forever.

AUSSIE 'GRANDMA' STILL CLOSE TO FIRE SURVIVORS

It's 4am on June 23, 2000, and the former Isis mayor is driving to Churchill St.

"I got a call at 2am to say there had been a fire at the Palace but it was under control," he said.

"I was due to head to Brisbane that day and had to be in Bundaberg at 6.30am."

Mr Trevor said he felt uneasy, so he quickly showered and drove to the main street.

"I could see the backpackers sitting on the street covered with blankets staring up at the hostel, almost willing their friends out of it," he said.

Mr Trevor quickly spoke with emergency service crews at the scene who delivered sombre news.

"They said 'We've got a real bad one here' and that's how the day started," he said.

The Palace fire claimed the lives of 15 young men and women and left an indelible mark on the tight-knit community.

But rather than being defined by the tragedy, the town would become known for how it responded to it, and Mr Trevor led the charge.

An aerial view of the Palace Backpackers hostel the day of the fire, June 23, 2000. Photo: NewsMail
An aerial view of the Palace Backpackers hostel the day of the fire, June 23, 2000. Photo: NewsMail

In the hours and days that followed, Mr Trevor juggled world-wide media commitments while helping the survivors.

"We had a lot of survivors that did not have anywhere to live," he said.

"The Isis Cultural Centre had just been upgraded so we decided that was the best place for them.

"The only people that could go in that building were the backpackers and that place became their refuge."

Mr Trevor said the way the community united to help the backpackers was heart-warming to watch.

"We were very fortunate to have people like Donna Duncan get involved with cooking, and the local Rotary and Lions clubs got involved too," he said.

Mr Trevor said the memorial on Sunday, June 25 - two days after the fire - was one of the toughest days of his life.

"It was an emotional experience," he said.

Sydney artist Josonia Palaitis' portrait, Taking a Break in the Field depicts the victims of the Palace Backpackers Hostel fire in 2000. (Photo taken with the kind permission of Ms Palaitis). Photo:GARY HUTCHISON.
Sydney artist Josonia Palaitis' portrait, Taking a Break in the Field depicts the victims of the Palace Backpackers Hostel fire in 2000. (Photo taken with the kind permission of Ms Palaitis). Photo:GARY HUTCHISON.

"One of the victims, a Korean woman named Hui-Kyong Lee, had been working on my farm and I knew her well.

"I had children aged 18 and 19 at the time and it just really hit home."

Once the media storm subsided, Mr Trevor was determined for the council to rebuild and take ownership of the building, which took months of negotiating and planning before rebuilding began in February 2002.

"We had to do what was right, no matter the cost," he said.

In 2001, Mr Trevor travelled to Europe to meet with families, informing them of the rebuilding plans and the memorial that would reside within.

"I thought at the time that none of the survivors would ever want to come back to Childers," he said.

"But for a lot of years after, they did come back and it was because of the way the community looked after them."

Mr Trevor said when he walked past the building today he could never be certain of his reaction.

PRECIOUS BUNDLE: Lea Isis Jansen was named after the district in a special tribute by her dad, Rob Jansen, who survived the fatal Palace Backpacker Hostel fire in 2000. Photo Contributed
PRECIOUS BUNDLE: Lea Isis Jansen was named after the district in a special tribute by her dad, Rob Jansen, who survived the fatal Palace Backpacker Hostel fire in 2000. Photo Contributed Contributed

"I can walk by the building 50 times and everything is okay," he said. "Then another time I walk down the street and look at the building and tears roll out of the corner of my eyes."

Mr Trevor said while Childers had moved forward from the tragic events of 15 years ago, those that perished would always be remembered.

"I'm immensely proud of the memorial and the support of the community and council at the time to make it happen," he said.


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