Port Arthur survivors speak about New Zealand attacks

Broad Arrow Cafe with the water memorial. Picture: Scott Gelston.
Broad Arrow Cafe with the water memorial. Picture: Scott Gelston.

Nearly 23 years ago Tasmania experienced something similar to the shootings that occurred in Christchurch on Friday, and two Australians know what the recovery process could be like for the survivors.

Kathleen and Michael Parsons were the last people to walk out of the Broad Arrow Cafe before Martin Bryant opened fire at Port Arthur on April 28, 1996.

Mrs Parsons said the attack in New Zealand made her think of the pain and suffering that would be involved.

She said it would be the beginning of their long road to recovery.

"The senseless act like Port Arthur also shows our wonderful community spirit and how good will always win over evil."

Experiencing Port Arthur

Mr and Mrs Parsons stopped in for lunch at the Broad Arrow Cafe but were in a rush to begin their 1.30pm guided tour.

"On entering (the cafe) Mike and I chatted about what a beautiful place Tasmania is and how everyone was so happy and helpful," Mrs Parsons said.

"We ordered the lunch special, a Malaysian couple with an elderly relative were still deciding so they politely offered to let us pass in front."

She said she saw a young man who looked out of place carrying a heavy bag and bumping into chairs.

Mr and Mrs Parsons finished their lunch at the cafe and walked over for the guided tour. Very soon after they left the shooting started.

"We got up from the table, went through the doors and then he started firing."

At first they thought it was an reenactment but soon people came out of the cafe in shock and covered in blood.

Mr and Mrs Parsons took shelter behind some bushes until they were confident he was gone. They could hear the shots getting further away because Bryant kept shooting as we went up the road.

"All around the room were people not moving, some sitting in chairs, some laying on the floor like they had dozed off," Mrs Parsons said.

"All around my feet was blood."

The Parsons spent hours inside the cafe assisting those who were still alive while the emergency services slowly arrived. They few home to Adelaide the next day.

Mr Parsons said he often thought about how the Malaysian family stepped aside to let them go in front.

Port Arthur historic site. Picture: Scott Gelston.

Port Arthur historic site. Picture: Scott Gelston.

The Road to Recovery

"Had they not done that, we would have still be inside sitting there. All these little things add up. I would like to think I could have done something but there is nothing I could do."

Mrs Parsons said when they got out of the cafe, a young couple took their table.

"We went back saw them sitting there, him cuddling her. We were saying 'but why'. Why did that couple stop to let us going in front of them, which allowed us two or three minutes to get our food, to sit down to eat. That was literally all it was, about two minutes."

Mr and Mrs Parsons had opposite reactions to coping with the horror they had endured.

Mike healed by talking and sharing his story but Kathy, a high powered corporate woman, struggled to speak about what she had seen and eventually admitted she couldn't deal with it on her own.

"At the time I just couldn't speak about it... because everyone wanted to know, I couldn't be near other people," Mrs Parsons said.

"I remember going to a party almost six months after. I went around the side of the house and started bawling my eyes out. I thought how can everything just go on and people be so happy when all those people have died. That overwhelms you."

Some of the physical symptoms she experienced included vomiting, sleeplessness, nightmares, flu like aching limbs, headaches and memory loss.

In the years following Port Arthur, Mrs Parsons struggled to eat red meat and avoided anything that could bring back the smell of that day.

She said she lost a lot of self confidence and motivation, struggled to be in crowds of people and developed a fear of the dark.

It is coming up to the 23rd anniversary of the massacre and the Parsons said they didn't think about it as often anymore and they had been able to get back to living a happy life.

A police officer's perspective

Retired police inspector Lyn Jones was working for Tasmania Police at the time of Port Arthur and interviewed Mr and Mrs Parsons after the event.

She said when she was interviewing witnesses afterwards, their greatest fear was having to go through court and relive the whole thing all over again.

"They were part of a most terrible incident, it would be hard for anyone to recover after that," Ms Jones said.

She said it was very hard for herself and other police officers because they all just felt so sorry for the victims.

Although Ms Jones did not go down to the site after the shooting she said she saw the crime scene photos.

"There are images that you never forget and people you never forget."

Former premier of Tasmania Tony Rundle was leading the state at the time of the Port Arthur massacre. 

Mr Rundle said the recent New Zealand attack reopened his memory from the event and how Tasmanians found it difficult to comprehend how such a vile event could happen in their state.

"That is the same as New Zealand now. They regard themselves as a peace loving country... like us."

Mrs Parsons said the terrible event that occurred (in New Zealand) only highlighted the need for Australia to keep its tight gun laws.

John Howard at Port Arthur for the 20th anniversary. Picture: Scott Gelston.

John Howard at Port Arthur for the 20th anniversary. Picture: Scott Gelston.

Gun Laws

Ms Jones said people were very willing to hand in their guns after John Howard changed Australia's gun laws.

"There was a presence there of a lot of people who had an understanding of unless we did something with the ownership of guns, this sort of thing could happen again."

Mr Rundle said he believed the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had handled the situation very well but people might push back about changing gun laws, as people did when the laws were changed in 1996.

"There are a lot of people, farmers and recreational shooters who were very unhappy about the changes to the laws. A lot of members of parliament were subject to quite a lot of pressure, including those in rural seats," Mr Rundle said.

"Tasmanians resisted a lot of pressure and that I think of that as a high point in political life in the state."

He said he thought the legislation that existed in Australia was appropriate and he hoped they wouldn't be modified or changed.

"I think it is understandable shooters felt they were the scape goats for what had happened. A lot of people still feel resentful for what had happened."