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CHAPTER ONE: The Mourning After

It was 6.20am. In Mount Druitt, Sue Webeck’s alarm was going off but, as she reached to silence it, she realised there was another noise. Her phone was ringing, loudly, cutting through the early-morning calm. As she slowly began to process what the person on the other end was saying, she turned on the television, flipping through channels until she found the morning news.

In seconds, she was in her car, hurtling toward Hambledon Road.

Paul Cachia had just walked in the front door from a night shift when his son handed him the house phone. It was his wife. Like Sue, it took him a moment to understand what exactly he was being told; like Sue, he hadn’t even hung up before he was out the door, still in his underwear, and running for the car.

There was no phone call for Donna Austin. It was just a normal Friday morning; she had to get ready for work, she had to message her daughter about plans they had that weekend. And, as she reached for the TV remote, she remembered that she had to drop her mum in some cough lollies. She hadn’t been able to the day before; work had kept her late.

Donna saw the same breakfast news as Sue, a live feed from a helicopter hovering above thick, black plumes of smoke. Adrenaline coursed through her body, and she had to concentrate on breathing.

It was Friday the 18th of November and, across western Sydney, more than 80 families were waking up to the news that Quakers Hill Nursing Home was ablaze.

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Aerial footage of Quakers Hill Nursing Home after the fire, courtesy Channel 9

“From the time we pulled into Hambledon Road, you could see the size of it,” explains Detective Sergeant Glenn Morfoot. A senior member of the NSW Homicide Squad, DS Morfoot and his partner Kaan McGregor were on their way to the force’s headquarters in Parramatta just before 7am when the call came in: there had been a largescale fire at Quakers Hill Nursing Home, with two elderly residents already confirmed dead and grave concerns for dozens more.

And then the operator relayed one more piece of information, passed on from fire officers already at the scene. The blaze had originated from two, separate areas within the building.

The fire had been deliberately lit.

“We couldn’t get anywhere near the crime scene in our car,” DS Morfoot says, remembering the overwhelming number of fire engines, ambulances and squad cars lining the street. “[That] gave us a bit of a feel for… what we were about to be confronted with.”

“It was just… like seeing, like you do on the news, with bombs,” says Sue Webeck. Five years on, the morning of November 18th still plays like a showreel in her head. She can clearly recall not being able to get down Hambledon Road, having to abandon her car in Barnier Street, her panic rising as she got closer to the nursing home. “I just ran.”

Sue joined the scores of frightened relatives milling in front of the police cordon; some could see their loved ones, crowded on haphazardly placed hospital beds and mattresses, wrapped in blankets and grasping at oxygen tanks, lost amid the smoky haze and blur of emergency responders. Others clamoured for answers to the mounting questions. Is my mum OK? What hospital has my dad been taken to?

What the hell happened?

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Elderly residents tended to by emergency services, courtesy Channel 9

While Sue hovered on the corner, Donna Austin was ushered to the nearby Anglican Church. Under the guidance of Reverend Geoff Bates, it had quickly become the information centre. A hotline was set up; volunteers darted from person to person, bringing food and tea and helped to ring around the seemingly never-ending list of hospitals that the injured Quakers Hill residents had been transferred to.

It was, by anyone’s definition, utter chaos.

For DS Morfoot, that meant doing something he never had before: splitting the investigation. Some of his team remained on the scene while the rest scattered, driving to Blacktown, Liverpool, Mount Druitt, Fairfield, Hawkesbury, Nepean and Royal North Shore Hospitals.

“Because of the urgency of the evacuation, there weren’t a lot of records or details where residents had been taken,” he says. “There was this added expectation that we’d be able to provide families with details – sooner, rather than later.”

One by one, uniformed police officers arrived back at the church, clutching notepads with hastily scrawled scraps of information inside. As they called out names, desperate, worried relatives came forward.

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News footage from Channel 9 shows the chaos the morning of November 18

“About twenty to 11, I walked to the servo to get coffee,” Sue recalls during an interview with WSFM. She speaks quietly, steadily, her hands firmly gripped in her lap. “And I got a phone call, from Hawkesbury hospital.” Sue’s mother, Verna Webeck, was 83 and totally bedbound at the time of the fire. “A doctor in emergency said ‘We’re just transporting your mum to Royal North Shore.’

“And with that, I collapsed.”

Not too far away, Paul Cachia’s phone was also ringing. This time it was a nurse from Westmead: His mother, Emmanuela, had been admitted. 

“I was so happy that they found her… I thought, ‘Oh beauty, she must be OK.’”

Sue Webeck talks to WSFM about arriving at Quakers Hill Nursing Home that morning

 

But, as the afternoon wore on, a number of families were still scrabbling for answers – and growing increasingly concerned.

“We waited in the Anglican Church from 7am to 3.30pm,” Lorraine Osland remembers. “Nobody could tell us anything. Nobody knew anything.”

Eventually, Lorraine took matters into her own hands, driving herself the 10 kilometres to Blacktown hospital after hearing that two unidentified residents were being treated in the emergency department. She was frantically hoping that one of them was her 86-year-old mother, Lola Bennett.

“They were two men,” Lorraine recalls. Even five years later, the disappointment bites.

But then she heard detectives asking questions about patients in Royal North Shore hospital.

“[He] had a photo on his mobile phone. As soon as I saw the photo… I knew it was mum.”

She rushed – she was told to rush – but amid all the confusion and evening traffic, it was 5 o’clock before Lorraine was reunited with her mother. She made it just in time.

“They turned mum’s life support off at about 6.30pm. We just had those few minutes.”

Back at Quakers Hill, Donna was still waiting for someone, anyone, to tell her where her 73-year-old mother, Alma Smith, was.

“I had the chaplain, for some reason, always hanging around me. People who worked for the nursing home, they all saw me and they’d come up and just hug me and cry.

“Later in the afternoon… one of the ladies, she was helping with everybody. And she came up to me and said ‘I can’t say anything, but I can’t see you suffering like this.’ I thought, ‘She’s gone, isn’t she.’

“And she just started crying.”

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Donna Austin is comforted by the chaplain as she waits for news of her mother, Alma Smith

By early evening, the crowds had begun to disperse; the remaining uninjured residents were quickly found emergency accommodation, panicked families drifted off, one at a time, as hospitals around Sydney managed to track them down, the some 100 fire officers, 100 ambulance personnel and 75 police officers on scene packed up, rolled off.

DS Glenn Morfoot didn’t see any of that. Like Donna, Paul, Sue and Lorraine, everything around him had become a blur. The day was passing in a series of routine checks: had the fire been lit by an internal, or external force? If external, was there an ongoing risk to the Quakers Hill community? If internal, who, of the 81 residents and various members of staff, could it have been?

One name kept cropping up, that of Roger Dean, the 35-year-old registered nurse who ran night shifts at Quakers Hill Nursing Home. News footage from that day picks him out amongst the chaos, carrying a bright yellow canvas bag as he helps frail, confused residents to safety, as he is attended to by paramedics for smoke inhalation and as he gives an interview to waiting reporters, assuring them he did all he could.

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Roger Dean is seen on camera, talking to reporters, not long after he lit the fires

“It was later in the afternoon,” Glenn recalls, “after we’d started getting all the statements from the assistants-in-nursing, the nurses, and then Roger Dean himself, that there seemed to be a clearer picture. That he may have been involved in some way.”

By 10pm on Friday the 18th of November, less than 15 hours after that first phone call to the Homicide Squad, DS Morfoot and McGregor had a full, taped confession. One officer carefully and painstakingly took notes while a second listened as Roger Dean, the man charged with the care of more than 80 elderly men and women, calmly revealed what he had done.

They listened as he explained that he had been stealing Schedule 8 drugs – Endone and Kapanol – from the facility, and knew he had to hide the evidence. They listened as he told of finding a lighter in the dining room, of setting fire to the sheets on an empty bed in ward 19 in the home’s A2 wing and walking away as the alarm started ringing and the emergency doors closed behind him. And they listened as he admitted to entering ward 3, in A1 wing and helping one of the residents, Molly, out of bed and to the toilet, before lighting a second fire at the foot of her bed.

“Ms Dorothy Sterling and Ms Dorothy Wu, aged 80 and 85 years respectively, were in their beds positioned up against the eastern wall in ward 3,” the coroner’s report reads. “Both suffered Alzheimer’s disease and other health problems. Both were bed-ridden.”

As the flames were finally extinguished, and the smoke began to clear, both were found dead.

Police released the tape of Roger Dean's startling and chilling confession

For Haley De Martin, the shock of what her beloved grandfather, Caesar Galea, looked like when she found him in the emergency department of Hawkesbury hospital is something that will stay with her forever.

“He was covered in soot. He was black. I will never forget how he was covered in soot. Even his hair, he had grey hair, and even his hair was black and greasy. He’d inhaled a lot of smoke. I think they must have known there wasn’t much they could do for him.”

Less than 48 hours later, Caesar, 82, passed away, surrounded by his grief-stricken family. He was the fire’s seventh victim.

Haley De Martin talks to WSFM about finding her grandfather Caesar in the hospital

Paul Cachia vividly remembers the first time he saw his mum in the hospital. “You walk in there and all you see is pipes. Her hair was burned, eyebrows, she had a big massive burn here.” He is pointing to his chest, to his heart, across which he now has the words “Mum & Dad” tattooed. 

“I was wondering why, all across her chest, she had these burn marks. Then I hear that the roof caved in in her room.”

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Photos released to the media show the utter destruction the fire left behind

“The hardest part of losing someone under those circumstances is you gotta give them away, to detectives,” Sue tells WSFM. Her mum, Verna – “my best friend” – hung on for 11 more days. Sue had time to ring her son, Michael, who was in Adelaide training for Afghanistan, to come home to say goodbye to his beloved grandmother. On November 29, 2011, Sue Webeck held her mother’s hand as she took her last breath at Royal North Shore Hospital.

Donna Austin couldn’t hold her mum’s hand. While other families were being escorted to intensive care units and emergency departments across Sydney, she was making the trip to the state morgue in Glebe. Today, her voice breaks as she remembers the staff gently warning her how her mum would look, that her skin would be black, that she had a bump on her head, that there would be blood. The idea of not being able to touch her, of leaving her alone in the morgue, was devastating.

“I just wanted to hold her hand, I just wanted to hug her, I just wanted to be there for her,” says Donna. Even now, five years on, her pain is raw, punctuated by steadying breaths and sips of water. “I hadn’t had a chance to talk to mum, I couldn’t say goodbye to mum.”

That night, Donna slept fitfully, surrounded by her daughters, until she was woken by a call from the police.

“They just said, we’d like to let you know now, before you hear it from the [news] tomorrow. It wasn’t an electrical fault. We’ve arrested Roger Dean with murder.”

DS Glenn Morfoot explains the sense of urgency the Homicide Squad felt that day

The sun was rising when DS Morfoot walked out of Mount Druitt Police Station the next morning. He doesn’t have to look at his notes once when talking about those 24 hours; he admits that that day, that investigation, is one that will stay with him for the rest of his life. And he distinctly remembers that car ride home, as dawn broke with the news of Roger Dean’s murderous act.

“It all just sort of hit home. [To] turn on the news and see the effect it had on the wider community.”

But as the smoke cleared and the chaos settled into a quiet, thorough investigation, the Quakers Hill Nursing Home families’ pain and horror had only just begun. Each day the death toll rose, one by one, as burns, smoke inhalation and stress became too much for the elderly men and women who had been trapped in their beds as Dean’s fire ripped through the home. Then came the court dates, the sentencing, the reading of the coroner’s report, the appeal. Month after month, year after year, wounds were reopened, exposed, felt afresh.

And each time, the families asked themselves one question. Why?

“Every year, people say it gets easier,” says Sue. “And it doesn’t. Every year you relive, from the first phone call you got to getting there.

“Mum always said to us, ‘Everything happens for a reason.’

“But we still haven’t found the reason for this.”

Click through to continue reading chapters two, three and four.

 

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