Port Arthur Massacre

Port Arthur, the site of a nineteenth-century convict settlement on Tasman Peninsula, has become an important tourist attraction which brings thousands of visitors to this relatively isolated area. At lunchtime on Sunday 28 April 1996, about sixty visitors were in the Broad Arrow Café when a young man entered. He carried a sports bag from which he drew an AR15 semi-automatic rifle. Quickly he moved through the busy café, slaughtering indiscriminately. He entered the adjoining gift shop to continue killing. In less than two minutes, 21 people were dead with many others wounded. Going out to the carpark he went to his car for another weapon, an SLR, and continued to hunt down victims.

Driving out of the site he encountered a mother and her two small daughters, and gunned down all three, then several more as they arrived at the tollbooth entry. He forced a hostage into the boot of a hijacked vehicle, and drove to Seascape Guest House at nearby Oakwood.

On the historic site, appeals for help went out. Local doctors, ambulance officers and emergency services tackled the situation as best they could until more help could reach the isolated spot. Because the gunman was still at large, police closed the only road access and helicopters had to be called in. Their landing and taking off sent swirling the heaps of fallen leaves from the many oak trees on the site, and a dry leaf was later adopted as the symbol of the tragedy. Altogether 35 people died in the massacre and many more were wounded. The gunman eventually surrendered to police after burning the guesthouse and its murdered owners as well as the hostage. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.

These events were the catalyst for the enacting of gun control legislation throughout Australia. Thousands of weapons were handed in to police and there are now strict laws on gun ownership and registration. (See also Crime.)

Further reading: M Scott, Port Arthur, Sydney, 1997.

Kate Sainsbury