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On the 20th Anniversary of the Port Arthur Massacre, Derryn Hinch remembers the man in the lift who turned to him and said ‘He got my Gwen’.
My mood was not good. The Sunday had started well. Ambling down to the Lord Nelson pub at The Rocks, from my Sydney city high-rise apartment, for the regular Ploughman’s Lunch while I ploughed through the weekend papers. Preparing for next day’s program at my new radio station 2GB.
The ritual was broken by a phone call from a good contact in Hobart. Something bad was happening at Port Arthur and “at least three people shot dead.” I alerted the station newsroom.
The next phone call upped the ante. “At least eight people are dead. Probably more. Mostly tourists.” I left the cheese and pickles and raced into 2GB.
I’d only been on air a few weeks as part of John Singleton’s expensive attempt to take on 2UE with a line-up of Hinch, Mark Day, Ita Buttrose and Clive Robertson. At that rosy stage of the relationship, I had the clout to order the football broadcast off-air and devote the late afternoon to the unfolding tragedy in Tasmania. I distinctly remember two things from that: how good the footy producers were feeding me the scant info coming through from Hobart on AAP. And a Singleton story.
Apparently, Singo and friends were driving back from the Blue Mountains and turned on 2GB for the football call. He told me later, he heard my voice on air and thought, “that’s a bloody long promo for Hinch,” before it dawned that something dramatic was unfolding.
I went off-air at 6pm and managed to catch a flight to Melbourne with a connecting flight to Launceston. All Melbourne-Hobart flights were full. In Launceston, the rental car people told me there was only one road to Hobart and pointed me in the right direction with a female journo I met on the plane. (For years, I’ve been telling people that’s how I met Miranda Devine and how, once we reached Hobart, I gave her my rental car and hoped she returned it. Several months ago, she vehemently denied it. Claimed she drove to Hobart with “your producer” Mike Jeffries and that I’d snaffled the last seat on a Hobart flight. Not true.) We arrived late at night in Hobart and, as they say, that’s where the story really starts.
I was going through a non-drinking stage, but decided to go down to the bar at Wrest Point to see the public reaction to the massacre – with more than 20 people now reported dead.
It was grotesque. The poker machines were ringing. The roulette wheels, spinning, even though the state had just experienced a massacre bigger than Dunblane or the Texas University tower shootings.
The bar was jumping and I got sick of shouting to revellers that, “No, I’m not on holidays…I’m here to cover the massacre.”
Annoyed, I headed for the lift, where the only other occupant’s question, “are you Derryn Hinch?” was met with a terse conversation-stopper: “yes.”
The response was equally abrupt when he asked what I was doing there. “Covering Port Arthur.”
His quiet, four-word reply made me freeze: “they got my Gwen.”
I can’t explain what happened next better than my recollection in Human Headlines – My 50 Years in the Media.
“What do you mean, ‘they got your Gwen’?”
“In the gift shop. He killed her.”
All of this before the lift reached the first floor where the doors opened and the man started to get out. I followed him and said “Are you okay? Would you like me to walk you to your door?”
“That’d be nice. I’m Ron Neander.” When we reached his room I said, “are you going to be okay? Do you want me to come in and sit with you for a while?”
He did, and then told his amazing story in a cathartic outpouring mixed with utter shock and disbelief as I sat with him through the whole night.
When I asked him what he was doing there at the hotel he said, “They (the police) put us on a bus at Port Arthur and told us to come here. My car’s still down there in the parking lot. They sealed the whole place off.” No escort. No grief counselling. No help in calling family with the shocking news. Just a free bus ride to a hotel.
And a nightmarish night alone.
I remember sitting on Ron Neander’s bed as he told me what he’d been thinking only minutes before Martin Bryant took out an AR15 semi-automatic rifle and started killing people as they ate their lunch in the Broad Arrow Café that balmy Sunday.
“This young bloke with long, blonde surfie hair, was standing right in front of us in the cafeteria line with his tray. He had a heavy, blue Rebel Sports bag which kept slipping off his shoulder. I wondered what was in it that made it so heavy.”
Ron and Gwen Neander finished their lunch and walked into the gift shop where they drifted apart as Gwen headed towards the counter to look at a rack of postcards. Two young women behind the counter, in black skirts and white shirts, smiled at her and made small talk.
Those two women and Gwen were among the last to die before Bryant continued his carnage elsewhere.
A fatalistic footnote: For the Neanders, it was a classic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They weren’t meant to be at Port Arthur that Sunday. Not even that year. The Tasmanian trip had been planned to celebrate Ron’s retirement – three years earlier. But tragedy struck the Neander family when his son was killed in a car accident. It took them all that time to muster up the enthusiasm to try again. And tragedy struck again.