Firefighter: tragedy of Palace fire a sight you can’t unsee

AS ONE of the biggest fire tragedies in Queensland's history, no one could have fathomed what local fire fighters were going to face when the call for Childers Palace Backpackers Hostel fire came in.

Queensland Fire and Emergency Services Bundaberg Station Officer Andrew McCracken was one of four Bundaberg firefighters tasked to the fire twenty years ago.

He said around midnight the initial call came in for a backpackers at Childers on fire with people reported missing.

The Childers crew were first on the scene and the weather conditions added another layer of complexity to the Bundaberg crew's response.

Mr McCracken said the night was like "pea soup" with almost zero visibility on the highway.

With the foggy conditions with the radio between crews and Firecom going backwards and forwards it was a "nervous time" as they tried to respond as fast as they could.

Once they made it to Childers the crew were met with a "surreal" scene.

Mr McCracken said it looked like something out of a "Hollywood movie" - it was misty, the building was ablaze and 100 people or more were on the street, some wrapped in blankets.

After liaising with the Captain of the Childers Auxiliary, Mr McCracken said their crew began fire fighting and search and rescue efforts.

"At some point I realised this is huge, this is massive," he said.

"When they said people were missing and we got there and seen the damage, I thought these people are in there. This is a massive tragedy."

Battling the blaze from the back of the hostel, Mr McCracken said they worked through the ground floor and then up.

He said the building was in two parts, with the front being an old pub and a gap in between the two with a stairwell which went up into the front of the place.

"That created like a chimney, the fire was lit down the bottom in the lounge room and as it gathered momentum, roared up that stairwell and gained access to the front part of the building," Mr McCracken said.

Once the flames were extinguished, they started to find those missing.

"At one point I was tasked with going through the place and doing a body count to try and get an actual number, because at that point there was still 17, 18 people missing; they weren't exactly sure," he said.

"I went through and there was one room where there was nine people inside and one just outside the doorway - and that is a sight that you can never unsee."

He counted 15 people.

"The other people who were missing turned up at other backpackers or had stayed at someone's house or something like that," he said.

"The official count was 15."

Mr McCracken said in the morning he received calls from media in England and it became increasingly clear how quickly news of the tragedy had travelled.

He said the crew stayed at the scene for about 12 hours, heading back to Bundaberg around lunchtime.

They were supposed to work the following night, but they were stood down from duty, going into the station for counselling and peer support instead.

While the fire and police investigations would carry on for some time, he said they didn't go back to the site until the ceremony was held with Princess Anne.

Since then Mr McCracken said it was only last year that he returned to the site, where there is a memorial in place.

"Walking up the stairs … it was surreal walking up there, because the other times I'd walked up the stairs it was all burnt out," he said.

Mr McCracken said of the four Bundaberg crew members, two had retired, while he and another officer were still at the station.

Since the Childers fire, he said other big jobs like the tilt train rollover brought on memories and emotions from the past.

He said there was a lot of similarities between the tilt train rollover and the Childers backpacker fire; the time of day, a lot of people involved, the conditions, the weather and it was out of town.

Thankfully, no one was killed in the tilt train incident.

When tasked to those jobs, Mr McCracken said time often seems to slow down as everyone rushes to help those in need.

While not diminishing the horror of the fire, Mr McCracken said if there was one silver lining to the tragedy it was the overhaul of legislation for budget accommodation - the BOLA legislation.

"That made it safer for a lot of travellers in the last 20 years," he said.

"Since the BOLA legislation has been in place, a lot of places are a lot safer than what they would have been and perhaps other tragedies have been prevented."

Tuesday will mark the 20th anniversary of the tragedy.