CHAPTER FOUR: Five Years On
“Something happened a couple of weeks ago,” smiles Sue Webeck, shaking her head. “I came racing in from work and I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll ring Mum!’
“It wasn’t until I put my hand on the phone that I was like, ‘Silly goose. She’s not here.’”
Sue is gentle and speaks softly, her words measured. She’s methodical as she walks WSFM through the last five years, remembering the night of the fire, the funeral and each court appearance. But occasionally a thought will distract her, a memory of her mum and son having a sword fight with knitting needles or one of her mum reading Pinocchio to her as a child.
“She’ll always be my best friend,” she says softly.
As the fifth anniversary of the Quakers Hill Nursing Home fire approaches, Sue is quietly hopeful. She’s not the only one; Paul Cachia, Donna Austin and Lorraine Osland – part of the group Sue wryly refers to as “The Usual Suspects” – are looking forward. This year won’t be any less painful, not by any stretch, but it’s the first that hasn’t been overshadowed by court cases and sentencings, inquests and appeals.
“This year, I might get through it a little easier,” Sue says. “We usually get together with some of the other families as well. We’ve been through everything together.
“We’ve got so many people that understand how we feel, and we understand how they feel. We have a big family now.”
Sue Webeck talks to WSFM about keeping her mum, Verna Webeck, close
Five years ago, Sue, Donna, Paul and Lorraine may have recognised each other from passing in the halls of Quakers Hill Nursing Home, nodding hello as they ducked in to visit their mothers; now they know each other’s stories as well as they know their own.
“Every year I always buy a nice bouquet of flowers,” Paul says, his voice breaking. It takes him a minute and, while he catches his breath, Donna reaches over and rests her hand on his shoulder.
“It’s not only for mum,” he continues. “It’s for all the others that lost their lives in there, and the people who got hurt.”
Bouquets of flowers crowded the nursing home entrance in the days after the fire
“That particular investigation, for a number of reasons, will stay with all those investigators,” DS Morfoot admits. As a member of the Homicide Squad, he was one of the first on the scene. “These were all guys that had been on the ground day one, had seen it all the way through.
“They felt a connection with the families and with the investigation. That relationship will stay with even the most junior detective.”
Those relationships were born out of an extreme set of circumstances that required an unusual approach. Rather than allowing rumours or uncertainty to filter through the group, officers scheduled regular group meetings to make sure the exact information was being passed onto those who needed it most. They set up a hotline, encouraged the devastated families to ring at any time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“They kept us in the know all the way through,” Lorraine says. “I’d say we had the best lot of detectives on our side.”
“They were fantastic people. [We] couldn’t have got any better.”
Donna Austin & Paul Cachia celebrate outside the court where Roger Dean was given 11 life sentences
“It’s been a busy time, between the day it happened, the involvement we’ve had with the courts and the homicide support groups,” Donna Austin says. “Now things have settled down a bit, I think my heart’s starting to get involved now, and not my anger.
“The pain, the hurt… It’s still there. The anniversary to me is just another year, time gone past, without my mum.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by many of the others. This is the first time Haley De Martin has felt strong enough to open up about the death of her adored grandfather, Caesar Galea. It’s part of the process, she understands that, but it’s still so raw.
“It feels like year one,” she tries to explain. “There’s no healing. It’s changed our family.
“Everyone’s bitter, everyone’s cranky. Everyone’s a bit distant now. It was really heartbreaking… I think it’s taken us all this many years.
“It’s like you don’t want to accept that that’s happened to us,” she continues. And how do you begin to accept it? “I haven’t wanted to move through it, at all. I’ve blocked it out.
“But… I want to pay my Grandad tribute. He deserves that more than anybody. He was a good man. He was so loving.”
Haley's beloved grandfather Caesar was 83 years old at the time of the fire
Like Haley, Paul Cachia has spent the last five years dealing with a flood of conflicting feelings since his mum Emmanuela’s death, feelings of guilt and heartbreak and fury. But occasionally something extraordinary enough happens to give him pause.
“We’ve always wondered who was the police officer that helped mum through the whole situation,” he smiles. “My son was looking through the computer and he goes, ‘Dad, dad, you wouldn’t believe who it is! It’s my mate, Josh!’
“He’d only become a police officer a couple of months before that. He didn’t know it was Anthony’s grandmother, he didn’t know it was my mother.
“When I saw [Josh], I grabbed him and I cuddled him, and I said, ‘Thanks for looking after mum.’
The Quakers Hill families have nothing but praise for the police and fire service who tried to help their parents
This year, Donna is flying to America; Lorraine is going on a cruise with her daughter. It’s a new way of marking the date for both of them. It’s been a long, tiring process, Lorraine explains, for everyone concerned. “I usually dread this time of year. My daughter said ‘I think we should go away, sort of relax a little bit.’”
Paul will join his family for a daytrip to La Perouse, like they always do. His parents loved it there, so he and his siblings, their partners and kids will gather and eat, drink, remember the good times. And Sue will mark the day with her son, Michael. He still gives his grandmother a kiss whenever he walks past her urn, which takes pride of place in the living room.
Each of them credit their mothers with giving them the strength to get through the last five years; each of them are quick to encourage others to cherish their family, tell their parents how much they love them. They understand, better than most, that you never know when it may be the last time.
“It’s been tough,” Sue says now, “but we’re all getting better.
“Slowly but surely.”