Sunday Herald Sun
Leading Senior Constable Caine [“Speedy” to locals] was called to the discovery of a body on a Friday night in October 2017. The sight when he arrived finally ignited years of undiagnosed and untreated post-traumatic stress disorder – the result, he now says, of a 30-hour horror shift in Kinglake on Black Saturday, 10 years ago.
He tried to switch off, but by the end of that weekend 15 months ago, he knew something was wrong. He also knew it stemmed back to the night of February 7-8 in 2009.
Sen-Constable Caine’s statement, part of his negligence claim against Victoria Police, is a chilling account of one of the most harrowing days in the state’s history.
His 17-page recollection begins with his drive to Kinglake police station to begin his shift just after 5.30pm on February 7, and seeing flames over Strathewen.
“I realised we were in trouble. I quickly contacted my wife to (tell her to) vacate home now,” he says.
Caine’s heroism in the night and the dawn that followed was mostly alongside police partner Roger Wood. [“Woodsy” to locals]. But for a few hours in the early morning of February 8 – after Sen-Constable Wood was ordered to end his shift just after 4am, having worked 18 hours – Caine was Kinglake’s solo police presence, trying to “organise chaos” in hell.
At 6.10pm on Black Saturday, he and Wood were present at the Pheasant Creek supermarket where “numerous” cars had stopped, trapped by the fire.
In a desperate bid to find an escape route, Wood headed off to see if the road to Kinglake West was safe. It was. Moments later, with cars lining the road, Caine yelled out “Kinglake West CFA now!” and sent up to 50 vehicles filled with people to safety as the fire took hold of a pine tree plantation opposite.
“The roar was deafening and then I heard the pine trees in the plantation cracking and popping,” his statement says.
As he tailed the convoy, he says “the sides of the road were igniting with fire as we drove on”.
Later at the Kinglake West CFA, he writes of seeing his wife [Laura Caine] comforting friend Ross Buchanan: “I approached both, where I was informed that Ross’s wife Bec has just called him and informed him that two of his four children died in Kinglake,” he wrote. It was later confirmed they had perished.
“At this time numerous stories were filtering through that Kinglake township had gone, all the shops, police station and hotel. [They hadn’t, The editor of Kinglake Ranges News, Ashley Geelan with others saved them].
“I held Ross close and informed him that I would get him down to his wife Bec as soon as I could. I left Ross with my wife.”
Later, a 9.20pm, Caine approached a four-car pileup where he found the remains of one of the fire victims: “The vehicle had reached such temperatures that the engine blocks and mag wheels were running liquid over the bitumen.” It was the first of 11 bodies he would discover as night turned to day.
Caine says police reinforcements were sent elsewhere as fire razed Kinglake, not just taking the homes of his friends, but also their lives.
For most of the night he was unaware of the safety of his own family. His statement of that night illuminates the unfolding disaster.
“Roger and I slowly drove down the main st where we observed people everywhere stunned and confused,” he states.
“At this time we realised we were the first wave of emergency services into Kinglake itself.” Inside the Kinglake CFA “the concrete floor was covered with people lying down with blankets. People sat on the lawn outside huddled together”.
“The roar of the fire was gone, but the sound of confusion and soft crying filled the air.”
Caine, deep down, felt angry that he and Wood had been left to deal with the ‘chaos’ that unfolded.
“No one would come up … there was no back-up. We were made to do it ourselves.”
As the fire subsided, he remembers in minute detail informing people he knew of family members who had perished and being asked to look for their children. A father would collapse to the ground on receiving news – either good or bad.
Caine and Wood were told there were no ambulances so they placed the most seriously injured victim – a woman unable to walk – in the back of their police car. They drove to Whittlesea and back, navigating debris including fallen power lines and burning trees on the road.
Caine says it was then he informed ambulance officers, en route to Kinglake where 1000 people were stranded and some injured, that another 200-300 people at Kinglake West needed help.
He states he managed to divert “three or four” ambulances to continue on to the Kinglake West CFA. But the pleas for help in Kinglake itself changed their minds.
Other police officers arrived and left Kinglake in the hours between 3am and 8.30am, but Caine was basically “one up”.
Soon after, he made it to his home to find it still standing, before resuming his duties.
“As the sun rose and I could see the magnitude of the devastation, I informed [VKC] Wang D24 (control) that Kinglake was gone,” Caine states.
He worked through the day, working through “the list” from property to property as ordered, finding the remains of families he knew, including children who played sport with his.
Caine finally made it home 30 hours after his shift started.
He was a hero, but he would never be the same man.
This article is re-published (unedited) with permission from the author, Anthony Dowsley, and Sunday Herald Sun (27 January) in the public interest. Kinglake Ranges News sincerely thanks Dowsley and News Ltd for permission to republish.
The original article is available online at news.com.au or in 27 January’s Sunday Herald Sun on pages 24 and 25.