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Court hears resident left coughing and struggling to breathe during Hazelwood fire

Email Resident left struggling to breathe and physically sick from Hazelwood coal mine fire, court hears By Nicole Asher

Updated October 07, 2019 17:14:41

Wide shot of smoke and power lines in front of the Hazelwood power station on March 2, 2014. Photo: The fire in the Hazelwood coal mine burnt for 45 days. (ABC News: Patrick Rocca) Related Story: Hazelwood operators should have foreseen mine fire, prosecutor tells jury as trial gets underway Related Story: Hazelwood power station 'completely inert' after owners pull the plug Related Story: As it happened: The Hazelwood mine fire Map: Morwell 3840

A woman who lived and worked less than one kilometre from Victoria's Hazelwood mine during the 2014 fire has told a Supreme Court trial looking into the blaze she felt physically sick from the smoke and falling ash.

Key points:

  • The fire in the Hazelwood coal mine was started by a bushfire spreading into the open-cut pit
  • Resident and cafe owner Michelle Gatt says the fire left her with breathing problems
  • The trial is expected to continue for more than a month

The fire in the Hazelwood coal mine burnt for 45 days, started by a bushfire spreading into the open-cut pit on February 9.

The mine's operator at the time, Hazelwood Power Corporation, is on trial in the Supreme Court on 14 Worksafe charges, accused of failing to protect its workers and the community from risk.

Michelle Gatt runs a cafe just 400 metres from the edge of the mine in the town of Morwell.

Michelle Gatt, a woman with blond hair looking into the distance Photo: Michelle Gatt told the court she felt physically sick and was left with no voice during the fire in the Hazelwood coal mine in 2014.
(Facebook)

Ms Gatt was working the day the fire started and took photos of heavy smoke in the sky as she left her cafe to check her nearby home was safe from the flames.

"I could see fire coming towards the town," Ms Gatt told the court.

"There were big embers flying around in the sky, we had to hose down everywhere to stop the embers catching things on fire.

"I could see a tree alight a little bit further down [the street]."

At one point, while returning home after relocating her pets and valuables to her mother's home further from the fire, Ms Gatt said she thought she may have lost her house to the blaze.

"You couldn't see anything at that stage, even to drive, the smoke and embers had come down that far," she said.

"We assumed our house was on fire."

Health impacts of fire

Asked about the health impacts, Ms Gatt told the court the fire left her coughing, struggling to breathe and with no voice.

"The amount of ash that was around, you were constantly coughing on the first day and it just got worse," she said.

"As the fire and the wind changed it was hard to breathe."

She said that continued from the day after the fire started until today.

"Within the third week, we were feeling physically sick, I had no voice, I was talking like I'd had a helium balloon," Ms Gatt told the court.

"The smoke was probably six to eight weeks.

"For a good eight to 12 weeks there was ash. To this day we're still getting ash."

The Morwell Neighbourhood House became a community information depot during the mine fire.

The not-for-profit's manager Tracie Lund told the court they made the decision to close the house on the day after the fire started to do "welfare checks".

"We knew Morwell and surrounds had been impacted, but we didn't know how," she said.

The house ended up being the location for weekly information sessions, at the request of the Country Fire Authority (CFA), Ms Lund said.

"We provided face masks and door seals and vacuum cleaners.

"We were a point of contact for people to find out about respite centres and health checks.

"We held six information sessions which were held on Tuesday.

"It changed each week; we ended up having a core group of EPA [Environment Protection Authority], CFA, Ambulance Victoria."

She said the health department and representatives of the local council would also attend at times.

The trial is expected to continue for more than a month.

Topics: industrial-fires, fires, disasters-and-accidents, health, courts-and-trials, law-crime-and-justice, environment, morwell-3840, vic, melbourne-3000

First posted October 07, 2019 15:38:54

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