'Aussie Grandma' keeps in contact with fire survivors
"I GOT a phone call early in the morning. It was cold, it was foggy. A lady asked me to give a hand up town because there had been a fire at The Palace. I didn't ask any questions, I just said give me five minutes.
"I parked outside the courthouse and looked across and I saw people with white blankets over their shoulders. I saw the smoke. I could smell it and I remember thinking, 'Oh my god, this is really bad."
Those were the words from Donna Duncan as she recounted the devastating events from June 23, 15 years ago.
The Childers woman played the role of carer when the tragedy occurred, looking after survivors of The Palace fire who were left traumatised.
"I remember when we found out that we had lost 15 people in the fire," she said.
"I slept on the floor that night with one of the girls who was in a really bad way. I just held on to her."
Fifteen years on and Mrs Duncan is still in constant contact with many of the backpackers and has been given the title of "Aussie Grandma".
"They are part of our family now. I have contact with probably around 40 of the survivors, probably 20 every day," she said.
"Last year we went to Germany because my son got married. We met up with a whole heap of the Dutch survivors and Rob, who has a little girl now, said 'Look, there's your Aussie Grandma'. They all send me photos of their kids. It's really lovely."
Mrs Duncan said this time of year was always hard for all who were involved on that fateful night. "Over the years it has become easier to deal with. But today is painful. It's painful to be sitting here remembering what happened 15 years ago and how much every single one of our lives have changed," she said.
"Over the last few days I have been in contact with a lot of the kids. Their message is that they are grateful for what we did and will never forget what happened.
"One of the New Zealand girls told me to tell Childers: Grief is like broken glass, it cuts deep to start with, but over time getting washed in the sand, the edges get softened."