‘Follow my voice, the open door is here’. Backpackers held their breath as they pushed through thick black smoke as flames jumped from rooms around them.
‘Follow my voice, the open door is here’. Backpackers held their breath as they pushed through thick black smoke as flames jumped from rooms around them.

Deathly screams and a desperate scramble for life

JOCHY Visser was standing inside the rebuilt Palace hostel in Childers when a busload of tourists rolled up and walked inside.

As they entered a guide explained the horrific fire that claimed 15 young lives some 18 years earlier.

Visser listened intently. To them he was just another sightseer.

What they didn't know was that he had been there before. When a suicidal madman burnt the hostel down in 2000. When Visser, a Dutchman, woke in his bunk bed in a daze and had to scramble for his life.

A moment of hell; the sound of breaking glass; deathly screams; and a blind dash for freedom and fresh air as black smoke engulfed the hostel.

Jochy Visser
Jochy Visser

As the guide spoke, Visser thought about telling his story.

How his friends were killed. His remarkable escape. How his life was changed forever.

Survivors Tony Gora and Jochy Visser speak to media days after the Childers fire. Photo: Patrick Hamilton.
Survivors Tony Gora and Jochy Visser speak to media days after the Childers fire. Photo: Patrick Hamilton.

"I had no idea what to do," Visser said.

"It was like an out of body experience."

But he couldn't speak. There were too many emotions.
**
Visser, at 23, was staying at a hostel in Brisbane when he saw an advertisement hanging on the wall for fruitpickers in Childers.

He had already stayed in Sydney, Melbourne, Byron Bay and the Gold Coast and used a hop-on, hop-off, party bus. He needed the cash and picked up the phone.

The Den Haag-born Visser walked into the Palace on June 3, 2000, after catching a Greyhound bus.

He worked as a labourer before picking avocados from their trees.

A Jochy Visser photo of people working on the Simpson avocado farm before the fire.
A Jochy Visser photo of people working on the Simpson avocado farm before the fire.


Visser soon made friends with a cohort of other Dutch nationals at the hostel, befriending the likes of 22-year-old Sebastian Westerveld.

Group of Dutch nationals. On the left top is Sebastian Westerveld, top right Rob Jansen, second row from the ground floor on the left is fire victim Joly Van Der Velden.
Group of Dutch nationals. On the left top is Sebastian Westerveld, top right Rob Jansen, second row from the ground floor on the left is fire victim Joly Van Der Velden.

The travellers would have dinner together, have a drink across the road at the pub and stay up late wearing Dutch scarves while watching the European championships which were being played in their homeland.

The pub across the street watching European championship football in Holland, Rob Jansen in the front row and just to the right is fire victims Joly Van Der Velden and Gary Sutton
The pub across the street watching European championship football in Holland, Rob Jansen in the front row and just to the right is fire victims Joly Van Der Velden and Gary Sutton

It didn't take Visser much time to notice Robert Paul Long. He stood out. He was 10 to 15 years older than most of them and he didn't fit in. He had a long beard and walked around without shoes.

Visser once spoke to Long in the toilet and he started to complain about how dirty they were, demanding they be cleaned.

"When you would see him you'd be like what a weird guy. What is he doing here?" Visser said.

"I would call it the typical Aussie redneck."

Long wouldn't sleep in his room but instead downstairs in the television room.

"He had a bit of a negative aura around him," Visser said.

Long had been loud and aggressive when he drank. Backpackers didn't want to go in the television room.

"He was not really nice to look at and some of the girls were a little bit scared as well," Visser said.

Robert Paul Long ‘stood out’ among the other backpackers.
Robert Paul Long ‘stood out’ among the other backpackers.

**
Visser woke to loud noises that sounded like a fight involving breaking glass just after midnight on June 23. He was in room 2 on the first floor.

He had been drinking the night before but hadn't gone to bed too late.

Sleeping in the middle bunk bed, he jumped out at the same time as Tony Gora who was sleeping above him.

"We opened the door and there was one just big black guff of smoke coming into the door," Visser said.
The pair shut the door and woke their roommate.

"We said there is fire, fire, fire we have to get out," Visser said.

They ran out through a door that went on to a verandah and Visser grabbed a small bumbag with his passport and money.

He grabbed his shirt and shoes.

But he heard screaming coming from the hallway.

The Palace Backpackers on fire.
The Palace Backpackers on fire.

"So I went to the door and opened it and I went lying on the ground and started screaming 'follow my voice, I'm here, follow my voice, the door is open here'," he said.

The Dutchman heard someone close by in the hallway and helped them into the room.

"His face was covered with smoke, totally black," he said.

"I took him outside and put him on the verandah … went back inside and opened the door and someone else told me later I got him out as well."

He shut the door again as the room was filling with smoke.

"I put my ear on the door and just held my breath and was just listening in silence if I could hear anything. At that moment I still had no idea what was going on."

He then ran on to the verandah, where he estimates 20 to 30 people were huddled.

The group managed to climb to the butcher's shop next door.

It was foggy and freezing outside.

Police and temporary mobile morgue container at the scene.
Police and temporary mobile morgue container at the scene.

He then heard a siren and minutes later a fireman climbed a ladder to the verandah.

"He said hey you can you make sure that everyone goes down the ladder and we're going in from downstairs," Visser said.

"Some people were super scared. So I had to hold them, take their hand and look them in their eye and say you can do this. I was telling people don't look down. Step by step. I talked everyone down the ladder and at one moment I was the last one.

"I remember looking back into my room and flames were coming out of my room so I got down too."

They all started gathering at the pub across the street before people "walked around like zombies" while trying to find friends and calling their families to tell them they were safe.

Emergency services on scene at The Palace Backpackers after the deadly fire. Photo: Anthony Weate.
Emergency services on scene at The Palace Backpackers after the deadly fire. Photo: Anthony Weate.

**

ROB Jansen had booked a bus ticket on the Oz Experience and thought he was travelling too fast up the east coast of Australia, after starting in Sydney.

The 22-year-old had read about Childers and knew he could get work, so hopped off the bus.

When he arrived, most of the backpackers were working on farms. But Robert Long had a day off and was one of the only people there.

The only connection they had was their name. Otherwise, Jansen thought Long didn't fit in and was noticeably older.

"Most of the people who were staying there, you know, they were there to have some fun, have a laugh, earn some money so that they could continue travelling," he said.

"He was kind of stuck there and couldn't, you know, I felt kind of sad for him because that was his life, fruitpicking."

Rob Jansen remembers his encounters with Long leading up to that fateful night. Photo: Russell Shakespeare
Rob Jansen remembers his encounters with Long leading up to that fateful night. Photo: Russell Shakespeare

Long would walk around always carrying and drinking from a Caltex-branded plastic mug.

Jansen was in Room 12 - the same as Long - but didn't see him that much. Long would grab clothes and a sleeping bag and then go and sleep downstairs on a sofa.

Jansen had noticed Long didn't get on with roommate Indian man Vishal Tomar. He said he once watched Long accuse Tomar of stealing crisps out of his bag a few weeks before the fire.

A few days before the fire Jansen moved downstairs to a dorm so he could watch the European championships with his fellow Dutchies.

"So at the end of the day ... football saved my life."

 

**
Jansen once worked with Long picking rockmelons on a farm. He said he made fun of him because he was quite short and Jansen was tall, at 193cm.

"We were walking behind a machine and we had to pick up the fruit and put it on a conveyor belt and I joked about his height and it was easier to bend over to pick up fruit than me," Jansen said.

"When I made the joke he just laughed.

"We started talking because of the name, he was called Rob there as well and I was Rob too.

"I found it hard to understand him because he didn't speak clearly.

"To me it wasn't easy to talk to him.

"It was the way he spoke. It was like 'burb burb burb'. You know, inside your mouth. You pronounce your words correctly but you mumble."

Herco Terra and Rob Jansen look at the memorial to the 15 backpackers who died in the Palace Backpackers Hostel fire.
Herco Terra and Rob Jansen look at the memorial to the 15 backpackers who died in the Palace Backpackers Hostel fire.

Long eventually left the backpackers, owing money, but he returned eight days later. He had been telling backpackers he wanted to bash Tomar. That night he set the hostel on fire.
**
Jansen woke up. There was the sound of breaking glass. He was now in Room 17, a larger dorm with more beds. Others woke. Backpacker Darrin Hill opened the door to the hallway.

Jansen immediately saw a red glare and Hill yelled "fire, fire, fire!".

The backpackers then moved a bunk bed from in front of a door, opened it and ran out on to the street.

Jansen then realised they hadn't checked all the beds in their room.

"So I ran back in and I was just going bed to bed and just touching all the beds, to see if they were empty," he said.

He ran back outside and people were trying to break a wooden fence at the side of the hostel to help anyone trying to come from the back of the property.

"There were people up on the balcony and some were trying to cross the roof of a butcher shop," Jansen said.

One in that group was Jochy Visser.

Fireman Darryl Livermore inspects the remains of a dormitory on the upper level of Palace Backpackers Hostel. Photo: Anthony Weate.
Fireman Darryl Livermore inspects the remains of a dormitory on the upper level of Palace Backpackers Hostel. Photo: Anthony Weate.

**

RICHARD Tempest didn't really get to know anyone. Nine hours after he arrived at the Palace it burnt down.

He'd arrived on a McCafferty's bus after a stay at a hostel in Hervey Bay.

He had spoken to Kelly and Stacey Slarke about their months-long trip around Australia. He went to shops and cooked dinner, possibly bolognese, in the communal kitchen.

The Brit, 25, then went to bed in Room 12 where there were three others.

**
He woke to what he thought was the sound of smashing plates. Tempest got up and looked through a small internal glass window and could see orange flames.

"All within that split second it became very evident, very quickly, that it was breaking glass," Tempest said.

He then woke up Moulay Lalaoui-Kamal and Peter Yeung who were in the room.

The only thing he grabbed was his watch.

Richard Tempest remembers smoke billowing into the room. Photographer: Liam Kidston.
Richard Tempest remembers smoke billowing into the room. Photographer: Liam Kidston.

He didn't really know where he was or the layout of the building.

Yeung opened the door and black, thick smoke billowed into the room.

"The lights wouldn't work, it was just pitch black," Tempest said.

The wooden floors were incredibly hot. Tempest put his shirt over his nose and mouth.

When they got out of the room there was an intense heat on his right hand side.

There were others already in the hallway, almost a "traffic jam" of people.

"You are sort of fumbling or feeling or reaching out for other people to make sure you are going the right way," Tempest said.

"I remember holding on to Peter, the back of his shirt. So I wouldn't get lost and so I could hold on and follow him in the right direction.

"Crawling. Hands on knees as far down as you possibly can. As low as humanly possible.

Tempest then crawled in a straight line to the exit, about six to eight metres.

"The exit stairs, fire escape at the back," he said.

Tempest thought his other roommates were behind him.

"I remember seeing Vishal and Peter and remember saying where is the other guy from our room?

"It's something that stays with me, why did three of us get out and why didn't the fourth person?

"What did he do different? Did he go the wrong way when he got out of the room?

"Did he go back into the room?"

Jochy Visser sits with grieving backpackers during church service at Childers Catholic church. Photo: Derek Moore
Jochy Visser sits with grieving backpackers during church service at Childers Catholic church. Photo: Derek Moore

**

LONG was arrested after a five-day manhunt. He was convicted of the murders of Kelly and Stacey Clarke and sentenced to 20 years in jail.
**

AFTERMATH

What if he was staying in Room 6 or 7 where almost every person died? What if he didn't get out?

"As you well know, it was all or nothing," he said.

"You either got out or you didn't. There was only one person who had a burn on her arm but nothing else."

Tempest said the backpackers were almost itinerate for the next few days, going from debriefings, to meals. It was a blur.

As he sat outside the cultural centre one day he made a life-long friend.

"A lady came up to me and said 'how are you going?', with an obvious English accent," he said.

Tempest was from a town called Halifax in Yorkshire and the woman, Alyson, was from Heckmondwike, only about 20 minutes away.

He ended up accepting her offer to stay at her Childers home.

Palace Backpackers fire survivors (L-R) Rob Jansen (Netherlands), Richard Tempest (New Zealand), Herco Terra (Netherlands) and Phil Vaughan (NSW) reunite at the site of the fire in Childers. Photo: John Wilson
Palace Backpackers fire survivors (L-R) Rob Jansen (Netherlands), Richard Tempest (New Zealand), Herco Terra (Netherlands) and Phil Vaughan (NSW) reunite at the site of the fire in Childers. Photo: John Wilson

"I speak to her every day. An unbelievable friend she is, an absolute rock for me."

Tempest doesn't think about Childers much. Unless there is a trigger. It could be a name or hearing about the town.

The father of two young boys who works in the security industry said people were surprised he now lives in Australia, given the traumatic night.

But there was a warm feeling about Australia.

"I certainly hand on heart wouldn't live anywhere else in the world," he said.

"You think 20 years ago who would have ever thought that I'd be living in Brisbane, 300km away from where ultimately someone tried to murder you?

"You think in 20 years we're all adults now, married, children and different career paths.

"It's all changed. All the locals used to call us 'the kids'."

**
ONE friend Jansen wishes he still had was Sebastian Westerveld. He didn't make it out.

Jansen was born and raised in Nijmegen, a town near the German border which is well known for the movie A Bridge Too Far.

Westerveld lived not far from him.

"There was a fair chance we played soccer against each other in the past, but we didn't know each other (until Childers)," Jansen said.

"We had the local team from Nijmegen which was really good and we talked about that. And that's what I left on a bench that became a shrine after the fire."

Childers Palace Backpackers Hostel victim Sebastian Westerveld
Childers Palace Backpackers Hostel victim Sebastian Westerveld

Jansen wrote a rhyme in Dutch.

"It said: 'Always sunshine and never more rain'.

"And that was a song that they sing in a stadium in Nijmegen."

Jansen remembers their last conversation. Westerveld offered him pancakes.

"But there's one thing in the world that I would never ever eat and that's pancakes," Jansen said.

"So I said, it's never gonna happen, my friend, you're gonna kill me if you give me a pancake.

"So we had a laugh about that and that's the last time I had seen him.

"I think I went into the street to get a burger and fries."

He also became close with Westerveld's family as did other Dutch survivors.

They wanted to hear about their son's last months alive.

"They really wanted to get in contact with survivors, because, back then we didn't have Facebook and you would send an email occasionally to your parents to tell them what you were up to, of course," Jansen said.

"But they had really simple questions like how do you cook? How do you prepare your meal? They wanted to know everything"

Jansen borrowed the Red Hot Chili Peppers CD Californication from Westerveld during their stay. Hearing song The Other Side has become a trigger for him. The song was also one of five played at the backpacker memorial days after the fire.

"If I hear that, that brings me back to Childers immediately," he said.

"I remember it was in 2007 and the Red Hot Chili Peppers were in Holland in Nijmegen and they didn't play that song and I was pissed off. To me it was a song with so much emotion and baggage and probably for the rest of the 50,000 people it wasn't."

Jansen says he is still cautious with fire, even at a barbecue.

Rob Jansen
Rob Jansen

"I like to joke around but I can't handle jokes about fire," he said.

Months after the fire, while in Coogee in Sydney, he could hear bottles being put into bins outside a hotel.

"And for some reason it triggered the memory of the glass breaking in the hostel. I just placed my hands on my ears and started running. I still had some issues to deal with I guess."

Jansen also refused to go to any Caltex petrol station because it was a reminder of Long walking around with his plastic mug.

Jansen went on to become a police detective and he works as a purchase officer for the Dutch police. He's a father of two young girls.

Rob Jansen
Rob Jansen

He has just finished another stint in the Caribbean for the police service. Sadly, his father died after contracting coronavirus and Jansen was unable to attend the funeral because of travel restrictions. He still talks to other backpacker survivors who have supported him.

Childers is not always a sad memory for Jansen these days.

"The good thing about it is that a lot of good things came out of it like good friendships," he said.

**
IT took Visser years to get over the fire.

Visser had also become close to Westerveld, 22, the relaxed Dutchman who was travelling with Adam Rowland, 19, from England.

"They met in Thailand and they became friends and they were super close," he said. "Sebastian told me that Adam is like my little brother and I will always take care of him."

Rowland was attracted to one of the backpackers from Wales, in a group of three girls only one of whom survived.

Adam Rowland
Adam Rowland

"He had his eye on her and he said she is really pretty," he said.

"I was like oh go and talk to her. Good luck man. "So I know they ended up talking with each other."

He'd also shared beers with Joly Van Der Velden, 22, from the Netherlands, who was a "sweet young girl with a big smile" loving life in Australia. She also didn't make it out.

Joly Van Der Velden
Joly Van Der Velden

"I wish I had a clearer state of mind at that moment that 'shit there might be more people inside and did everyone get out?'" Visser said.

"That was a thing worrying me later after everything happened and you knew people passed away.

"It was for me a difficult thing knowing that one of the English guys I got out, was in the same room as Adam and Sebastian. I know also a lot of people were near the exit on my side that didn't get out. It was just the most terrible thought."

Jochy Visser
Jochy Visser

Despite happening 20 years ago, Visser said it was like a wound reopening.

"In a few days I've seen the worse a man can do and the best a man can do," he said.

"The worst is this crazy guy who sets this place on fire and a lot of people who lost their life for nothing.

"And on the other hand it happened to be in Childers in a really nice community where the people were like family for us from day one. They took care of us and made us suffer a little bit less."

Visser still lives in Den Haag and works in the automotive industry as a garage manager.

Jochy Visser with his parents and former Isis mayor Bill Trevor (second from right)
Jochy Visser with his parents and former Isis mayor Bill Trevor (second from right)

When he returns to Childers it still feels like a "warm blanket". Like going home. He sees his "second mother" Donna Duncan, a local avocado grower who took him in to her home while she helped cook 1400 meals a day for backpackers and emergency services.

"You are getting back to the place where the worst thing in your life happened, where people died, but still you know it is good being there."

Originally published as Deathly screams, scramble for life: Inside as Palace exploded



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