real life

"The kids woke up screaming." Teena's family were among the last evacuees rescued from Mallacoota.

“The kids woke up screaming many times last night, and I am wandering around not knowing where to start. How do I get back to ‘normal’?

“I’ve had a good cry, and I just feel so guilty that we get to come home, and others have lost their whole homes.”

**

Teena Hartrup and her young family arrived in Mallacoota in Victoria’s Gippsland late on December 29th for a long awaited holiday.

Teena’s husband Kane is originally from the beautiful coastal region and was keen to show two-year-old Lexie and four-year-old Cole where he grew up.

“We were all very excited. We’d booked a year ago for the summer,” Teena told Mamamia.

Sidenote: Here’s Celeste Barber’s mother-in-law on the devastating bushfires. Post continues after video.

Video by Celeste Barber

They were staying in a little unit behind the main strip of shops in town, and as soon as they arrived and settled into their accomodation they started hearing whispers about possible fires. But they were only whispers, and the Hartrups decided they were okay.

The next morning it was scorching hot, and the family settled in for a day at the beach. Teena’s cousin was also in town camping, and decided to head to the town meeting that’d been called – just to check.

It all changed in that meeting. Mere hours later they’d find themselves huddled among thousands, hiding under wet blankets near the ocean as fire and embers bared down on them.

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Teena’s cousin managed to get out in time, jumping in her car and getting on the only road out straight after the meeting. She’d desperately tried to contact Teena, but the Hartrups had been happily playing in the water at the time, nowhere near their phones.

Ten minutes later the only road out of town was closed, trapping everyone who was still in Mallacoota.

“The fire will 100 per cent hit us – brace yourself,” Teena was told by a firefighter that afternoon. They’d been told to expect impact by 5pm.

“We stayed with wet blankets near the water, but by 8pm there was still no fire,” Teena told Mamamia. “We made the choice to go back inside the unit, so the kids didn’t have to sleep outside,” she added.

Teena and her husband then sat and watched the Victoria emergency app in horror, as the fires got closer and closer.

Teenas-apartment
Teena and her family were the blue dot. They had nine fires baring down on them. Image: Supplied.
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"We sat up all night and watched the big fires get closer on three sides of our unit, then spot fires started everywhere. We were told if we hear a town siren to run back to the water wearing long sleeves and pants to protect us from fire," said Teena.

At 7am on New Year's Eve, the sky was a dark ominous red and the terrified family made the dash back to the shoreline. But the smoke was too thick, and the fire had created its own storm. The water was too rough for them to re-enter it, especially with two little kids clinging on.

Teena Hartrup
The view from the Hartrup's unit on the morning of New Year's Eve. Image: Supplied.

So they sat in their pitch black unit with wet towels around them and boards up on their windows. They held wet tea towels over their stinging faces as they struggled to breathe through the thick air.

Kane kept venturing outside to put out the embers that had reached them with a hose, but he kept being brought back inside - sick from the smoke.

"We all handled if differently," Teena told Mamamia. "I didn't focus on outside at all. I played with the kids and tried to deflect them, but they were both scared and were acting out. Cole kept saying, 'are the fires coming to get us?'"

Thankfully, it didn't hit the house, and when it was safe to do so the Hartrups once again fled back to the water.

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"We were surrounded by fire, but we had the water to protect us," said Teena.

Teena surrounded by fire
Back at the beach, they were once again surrounded by fire. Image: Supplied.

The next day, New Year's Day, they were told help was on the way. A navy ship that would hold over one thousand people was coming to Mallacoota. But as soon as there was hope, it was dashed for families with kids under five. They were told the ladder was too difficult for children to climb and they had no small life jackets for them.

The elderly and children are usually the first out, but this time they would have to be the last.

They lined up for hours waiting to find out their options, until eventually being told they'd be taken out by air. But the planes were only taking 12 people at a time.

They were up to their third day without any power, and spent the first day of 2020 waiting anxiously by the phone for a message telling them it was go-time. As soon as they got word, they'd have to dash to the plane or they'd miss their spot.

"I wasn't frustrated yet...I hadn't cried yet," Teena told Mamamia.

The temperature after a short reprieve was starting to inch its way back up, and fears of fires doubling back were starting to grow.

"We didn't have any fire trucks though, they had left to go somewhere else that needed help," said Teena.

Teena and kids
Teena tried to keep the kids occupied, and distracted. Little did they know they were in an emergency situation. Image: Supplied.
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The call finally came on Thursday at 6pm. The Hartrups packed up the car with their belongings and left with only a backpack between them, throwing out all of their food and drink in preparation for their evacuation.

"We arrived and waited for ages, they told us they had a bus to take us to the airport. When we finally got there, there was no aircraft. We sat in a tiny room for hours because they needed the bus for other things. By this point it was 11pm and I had a four-year-old asleep on the ground and a two-year-old hysterically tantruming," said Teena.

"I finally broke down," she said.

Eventually, they made it back to their unit at midnight. They'd been told to be ready to try again at 6am. But the conditions were horrendous. Nothing was flying out, it was too dangerous.

The next morning, Saturday, Kane came down with gastro. It was food poisoning caused from meat they'd been eating that had been thawed and re-heated again. They'd been running out of options for food.

They again packed up the car and went back to wait for a plane. No plane came, so they went home. Again.

Teena was starting to worry. Kane was really sick. How would she get him back to the plane in his condition?

"We then found out the boat was coming back, and was now accepting kids. It was going to be a 24 hour trip in bad conditions, but we were willing to do anything to get out.

"I ran down to put our names on the list for the boat and got told once again were on the list to be called for the air evacuation," said Teena.

Evacuees From Mallacoota Arrive at Port of Hastings
The Hartrups had been told they couldn't board the ships with children under five. Image: Getty.
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Teena sprinted home, got the bag, bundled up the kids and got everyone straight on the bus. This time there was an aircraft waiting. Eight days after arriving in Mallacoota for a relaxing holiday, the Hartrups were finally in the air on their way to safety after the most harrowing of experiences.

"We didn't know the destination until we were there [in the plane] and found out we were heading for Sale. But we hadn't been able to tell anyone to pick us up, or what time we were landing," said Teena.

Thankfully, Teena's dad had been working busily from his end. He'd tracked down a couple of car seats and had driven to Sale in the hopes they'd be taken there.

"We arrived in Sale to a relief centre and they were so amazing with food and water and entertainment for the kids," said Teena.

A two hour drive got them home again, and they arrived to a strange normality. Everyone was just going about their lives.

"It was surreal," said Teena.

Their first night back home, the kids woke up screaming many times in the night.

Teena and her husband are in a daze, and she can't stop crying.

"We owe our lives to the firefighters," Teena told Mamamia. "I just feel guilty that we get to come home only having left out car and holiday belongings behind. There were people who lost their whole homes."

If you want to help, you can donate funds to the organisations below:

Feature image: Supplied.

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