By Michelle Dryburgh
Claiming 65 lives and injuring hundreds more, Tracy left behind an unimaginable trail of destruction.
At least 70 per cent of homes were destroyed, essential services were cut and supplies quickly ran dry.
Darwin grandmother and Cyclone Tracy survivor Faye Spiegel was seven and a half months pregnant with her first child when disaster struck.
Speaking to DarwinLife on the 40th anniversary, Faye recalls the horror that unfolded that night, and the harrowing days and months that followed…
Hearing on the radio a storm was on its way, Frank Spiegel secured his mobile home under the steel prongs of a forklift.
It was Christmas Eve, 1974, and Frank had just returned home from work to his heavily pregnant wife, Faye.
They lived in a caravan on a block in the 11 Mile, and were joining friends in the nearby main house for dinner.
Oblivious to the impending danger, the couple made their way back to their caravan around 9pm. The wind and rain soon picked up, and by 10.30pm they returned to the house, fearing the caravan might blow away.
“We were talking back at the house, and I remember my husband got up and walked to the door as the glass exploded. From then on it was just chaos,” recalls Faye.
“I can still hear it exploding. It’s a sound you can’t forget.”
With a cut to his chin, Franked fought against 200+kmh winds to hold a mattress against the exposed doorway. The other men in the house covered the windows, and Faye bunkered down in the bathroom with three children, singing nursery rhymes in an attempt to drown out the noise of the cyclone.
There they stayed until the eye of the storm, when they emerged to assess the damage.
“It didn’t look too bad where we were. Our caravan wasn’t hit at all. At the time it was an industrial area, no houses and not a lot of people, but we had no idea what had happened to Darwin,” says Faye.
“It started up again so we went back into the bathroom until it had gone. It was 7am the next morning when we all finally came out.”
With no electricity or communications and growing concern about the damage to the rest of Darwin, the couple drove into the city.
“It was the most horrific sight you could imagine, horrendous, just horrendous,” says Faye.
“Street after street after street was just flattened. It was awful.”
Survivors immediately got to work on the seemingly impossible task of cleaning up. Faye recalls the men going out to work while she and the other women rationed the leftover Christmas food to feed everyone for the first five days.
“There was a generator and we had fridges. We cooked as a community and shared everything we had, eating breakfast together, lunch and dinner. If anybody else was around, you fed them. Everybody helped where they could.”
“It was hot, very hot – but that’s okay. Life moved on, we were alive and we were going to be alright.”
With all communications cut, Faye was unable to reach her worried parents back in Victoria. Five days after the cyclone, she gained access to a telephone at the old post office and phoned to tell them she was okay.
“The only thing my parents had heard in those five days was that my name wasn’t on the death list. It was awful.”
On the sixth day Faye was among the thousands of people evacuated from Darwin, flown in a Hercules first to Adelaide and then onto Melbourne where her first child Martyn would be born.
“I said goodbye to my husband, having no idea when I would see him again,” Faye recalls.
“Martyn was born on the 2nd of March, and Frank arrived four days before. He was there when our baby was born.”
Frank returned to Darwin a few days later to continue the clean-up, not seeing Faye or their new-born son again until they were cleared to return to Darwin nearly two months later.
Undeterred by the cyclone, Faye and Frank chose to stay in Darwin and raise their family as the city was rebuilt, welcoming the arrival of daughter Heidi and second son Craig.
In 1983 they built their own home in Karama and have lived there ever since.
“My husband would never leave this place, he loves the Territory, he loves the life, and still works full time at 71 years old,” smiles Faye.
“Our two sons and daughter and grandchildren live here, we have no reason to leave.”
Faye and Frank have weathered every cyclone to hit Darwin since Tracy, and they do so with a calm and collected approach.
Knowing how little warning they had of one of the most destructive storms in Australia’s history, they ensure they always have enough food to last several days and keep their home prepared in wet season.
“We don’t get scared or worried, we just get ready. You can’t be blasé about it and there’s no need to panic. If a cyclone’s going to happen it’s going to happen, you can’t stop it, you just need to be ready,” says Faye.
Preferring not to attend public commemorations for the 40th anniversary of Cyclone Tracy, Frank and Faye chose to remember the day privately.
“Darwin’s never been the same, not ever,” says Faye.
“Darwin blew away on Christmas Eve in 1974, it really did. It’s a different Darwin today.”