In her 17 years at St Thomas Aquinas Primary School, Springwood in the Blue Mountains, Good Samaritan Sister Monica Armstrong has never seen bushfires come as close to the school as they were last month.
Like so many people, she is stunned by how quickly these unseasonal bushfires moved and the devastation they caused.
Monica, a home-school liaison officer, recalls returning to school after a home pastoral visit on October 17. At 1:20pm she was talking with her principal, Sergio Rosata, about the strong winds that day. He was telling her that the students would be spending play-time indoors. About 10 minutes later, as Monica drove down the Great Western Highway on her way to a meeting, she looked back and could see black smoke.
“I thought, ‘Gee that’s close’,” Monica recalled. “I put the radio on and as soon as I heard them mention Links View [Road], I thought, ‘Oh, that is very close’. So I kept the radio on all the way. And I knew I wouldn’t have got back in [to the school] if I’d have gone back.”
At about 2:00pm, after failed attempts to get a telephone response from the school, a very worried Monica called one of the teachers on her mobile, only to discover that all 550 students and their teachers had been evacuated and were walking to the local shopping centre some two kilometres away to seek refuge from an uncontrolled bushfire.
“It came so quickly,” Monica said. “Someone was looking after us.”
The October Blue Mountains’ bushfires have been described as the worst in a decade, destroying over 200 homes and damaging another 120. Ten families from the school – including principal, Sergio Rosato’s – were among those who lost their homes. Many of the families also experienced property damage.
One month on, Monica said the community is still “shell-shocked” and coming to terms with what happened. But she’s moved by the strength and courage of the community, and their ability to support one another.
“It’s a big, big thing, and I’m just so glad we’re the school community that we are,” she said.
Because of her pastoral ministry in the school, Monica has been very involved in the recovery effort, supporting families who have lost their homes, receiving and distributing donated money and goods.
She said the generosity of people, both near and far, has been “absolutely extraordinary”. Donations have come directly to her from many sources, including individuals, community groups and schools.
Beyond the much-needed material support, there have also been touching gestures, such as the letter of support from a Year 2 class at a Sydney school to the Year 2 class at Springwood.
Last week (November 13), The Wiggles took time out of a busy touring schedule to perform at the school. Monica said the concert was a morale boost for the whole community, but especially the students. “It was absolutely wonderful.”
During the concert, The Wiggles paid tribute to school principal, Sergio (also a musician), for his courageous and selfless leadership during the bushfire. They presented him with a new guitar to replace the one he lost when his own home was destroyed.
Monica is very conscious of the emotional well-being of the community. “The children are certainly very much in everybody’s mind in the school,” she said. “We’re there – teachers from the principal down are there to support the children and to support any of the families we can.”
In the early days after the October 17 fire, Monica visited the devastated areas that were closed to the general community. “It was important for me to visit those areas so I could know what the children were talking about, what they saw,” she explained. “I knew all those streets. I knew those houses. I knew the families.”
She talks about a little boy whose house wasn’t destroyed, but who’s finding it distressing to see the burnt-out remains of neighbouring houses in his street.
“[For him], it’s going down the road and seeing all that’s burnt and people demolishing houses. It’s not over,” she said.
“And that’s why I wanted to go down around the streets so I could see [the effects of the fire]. And some of them, I think when things quieten down…, if they say to me, ‘Did you see this or that?’ or ‘Did you see so and so’, I know I can tell them. You’re in it with them, then.”
For Monica, it’s a privilege to be present to the community at this time of need.
“I am pleased, grateful, privileged – all of those words – to be there. Because the children know me, and if they want to say something they do. I’m not counselling, but they are just talking to you about [their experiences] – getting it out.”