Shell-shocked backpackers stood on the street as firefighters battled to extinguish the Childers Backpackers fire. Then Donna Duncan stepped up.
Shell-shocked backpackers stood on the street as firefighters battled to extinguish the Childers Backpackers fire. Then Donna Duncan stepped up.

‘Aussie mum’ rises from ashes for traumatised backpackers

WITH their parents and loved ones thousands of miles away, Donna Duncan stepped in as mum for the backpackers who'd fled the Palace hostel.

Robert Paul Long had set it on fire, killing 15 people.

The Childers avocado grower heard sirens before the phone rang on June 23, 2000, with a woman from St Vinnies asking for help.

When Duncan arrived in town on the cold and foggy morning she saw the shell-shocked backpackers standing in the street, some barely clothed, wrapped in blankets.

Duncan hurried to the cultural centre where she and other volunteers would soon be making 1400 meals a day for the backpackers and emergency services.

Donna Duncan made hundreds of meals for backpackers and emergency services. Photo Lachie Millard
Donna Duncan made hundreds of meals for backpackers and emergency services. Photo Lachie Millard

She'd race home and pack her own avocados and custard apples with husband Tom. Volunteers sourced produce from local growers and in Bundaberg and Gin Gin.

"If there was going to be something like this happen then Childers was the place for it to happen," Duncan told The Courier-Mail.

"Because this is a very caring community and people do extraordinary things."

Backpackers soon became familiar with Duncan and realised her house was only about 100m from town.

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

"When some of the backpackers figured out where I lived, they just turned up here," she said.

"Then it was just like an open house. If it wasn't such a dreadful situation it would have been so pleasurable to have them here."

A month later Duncan, who was also a foster parent, was caring for seven children whose parents were murdered in Maryborough.

"We've got these two groups of people who were traumatic," she said.

"And those surviving backpackers recognise these kids needed help and they just surrounded them."

Survivors of hostel fire comfort each other.
Survivors of hostel fire comfort each other.

Duncan said some of the survivors had committed suicide and in town there had been a spate of unexplained suicides in the years to come.

But survivor backpackers still returned every year and she spoke to them weekly.

A number of survivors told The Courier-Mail Duncan was their point of contact when arriving in town.

"They refer to me as their Aussie mum," Duncan said.

"They could have easily turned their backs on us and say 'no we don't want anything to do with you', but they didn't."

The tragedy had placed a toll on the small country town.

"It's crazy that we still feel like this 20 years later," she said.

"I know it's not guilt, it's just such sadness for the families involved, for the young people who were out here doing something that every young person in the world should be allowed to do without fear," Duncan said.

Originally published as 'Aussie mum' rises from ashes for traumatised backpackers



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