Sunday, March 01, 2009


The most haunting images from the Victorian Fires of February 7 are easily those of burned out, crashed cars spread along the road leading into and through Kinglake. Perhaps as many as 20 people died in a series of horrific car accidents that day, including at least six children, and one infant. Families perished as their cars slammed into each other at high speed, fleeing heat and fire so intense it melted tyres and alloy wheels as they tried to escape. Cars ploughed into trees and plunged into ditches as drivers became lost in the smoke of the massive blaze that few in Kinglake, that afternoon, even knew was coming for them.

We've heard the stories of hundreds of survivors of the February 7 fires, but we know almost nothing about the final moments in the lives of the people who died in these cars. The fear, and terror, they experienced is unimaginable.

All photos from this extensive gallery of Victorian Fires images

ABC reporter Michael Vincent on the crashed cars of Kinglake :
"I came in with a CSA officer and it was just here there was still smoke drifting across the road..."
"Lots of debris, trees, corrugated iron roofing, power lines dangling across and then the many, many, burned out car wrecks - close to, I'd say, 20 on the main road alone.
"[There are] obvious accidents, head-on collisions, and five cars concertinaed with a motorbike had gone into a ditch.
"It's quite scary to imagine what these people went through. And some of them apparently did survive.
"There were some cars being taken away last night by the police and I imagine there were bodies in those cars. I couldn't physically see any, but the police were taking them away.
"A lot of people did panic and jumped in their cars at the last minute. It came on that fast. They had 15 minutes between when they saw it over in the far distance, 25 kilometres away, before it hit.
"So a lot of people, last minute, not realising that it was the last minute by the time they were on the road."
A terrible, incredible story of survival amongst all the death :
A Kinglake survivor saved a family of five but had to leave another man to die.
Karl Amatnieks, 56, and his wife Jane were fleeing when they saw the family trapped in a car.
They stopped as the inferno bore down and pulled the family into their car.
But Mr Amatnieks says he is no hero.
"I could not leave five people lying there waiting to die -- it's that simple," he said.
The couple were racing along Kinglake-Whittlesea Rd when they saw the family in danger.
"As we got to the bottom of the hill, we came across this couple with three kids who were stranded. They were stuck on the side of the road after slamming into the back of another car. It was horrific."
He said heavy smoke and ember sparks made driving almost impossible.
"As we got them in the car and took off, another car came down the hill and slammed into (the first crash)."
He said he felt helpless as he drove away, leaving the crash driver to die.
Moments later the inferno engulfed the pile-up.

The story of Benjamin Banks is very different again. A car crash, he believes, saved his life :
Everything that could go wrong did go wrong when Benjamin Banks tried to escape the Kinglake inferno.
It was a head-on car crash, his third crash within minutes, that ironically saved his life.
He also survived a "fire tornado" that peeled the paint from his car, and another incident when the house he eventually took shelter in also caught fire.
After a "big night" on Friday that ended about 6am on Saturday, Mr Banks was woken about 2pm by his cousin Dean, 18, as smoke enveloped his Kinglake West home.
....Mr Banks' second car failed to start and he had to change the battery.
"I knew I had to save my cousin. I wanted to save him before me. I didn't realise how intense it was and didn't realise how thick the fire had gotten."
Mr Banks' car then hit a tree lying on the road. He ploughed through it before hitting a second.
"Then this big whirlybird tornado of flame hit us. I remember looking up at it and it was as high as the trees."
The car almost tipped over and Mr Banks watched the paint peel off the bonnet and the car window melt, dripping molten glass on to his hand.
"I tried to drive again but there were no tyres left. I could feel steel on steel and could hear the steel rims grinding on the road and I was stuck on this tree."
Suddenly, headlights appeared and collided head on with Mr Banks.
"But I think that was my saving grace because if it had not hit me we would have burned to death in the car."