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Port Arthur site of tragic beauty

Tranquil tourist area a counterpoint to shootings 10 years ago

By Geoff Hiscock
CNN

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Port Arthur will host many hundreds of people at the 2006 commemorative service.

DAY OF INFAMY

SUNDAY, APRIL 28, 1996:

• A Hobart man, Martin Bryant, 29, entered the Port Arthur historic site at 1.10 p.m. He argued with an attendant about where he could park his car.

• At about 1.30 p.m. he bought a meal at the site's Broad Arrow Cafe, ate it on the verandah outside, then walked back in with his sports bag, pulled out an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle with a 30-shot magazine and begin firing. He killed 20 people in the cafe and adjoining gift shop in about 90 seconds. Another 12 were injured.

• Moving outside, he shot and killed more people in the car park, on tourist buses, and near the toll booth. The last death was that of a hostage whom Bryant took with him into the Seascape Cottage guesthouse, where earlier he had killed the two owners. All told, 35 people died and 18 others were wounded in Bryant's rampage.

• The Seascape siege continued throughout the afternoon and into the next day, with Bryant firing randomly at the police outside. It ended about 8 a.m. Monday, when Bryant set fire to the cottage. With his clothes on fire, he emerged from the burning building and surrendered.

• The toll could have been higher. Police suspect Bryant actually planned to catch the ferry Bundeena, carrying more than 120 people, to the nearby Isle of the Dead. He missed the ferry.

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SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- There is a tragic and lonely beauty about Port Arthur, the historic tourist area on the southern island of Tasmania that was once Australia's most notorious convict jail and a hellhole for transportees from Britain.

Set in a tranquil harbor bordered by forests, the site today is a mix of ruined and restored 19th century buildings, lawns and tree-lined paths, and the highly structured order of ornamental gardens that once surrounded the commandant's residence.

In the harsh physical conditions that prevailed in southern Tasmania, many of Port Arthur's inmates died during its five decades as a penal settlement between 1830 and 1877.

But the Port Arthur name was permanently seared into the Australian psyche 10 years ago, when it was the site of a gun massacre in which 35 innocent people were murdered by one man, Martin Bryant.

That tragedy has been marked on April 28, when Australian Prime Minister John Howard attended a 10-year commemorative service that drew many hundreds of people to Port Arthur.

Howard told the service that the "unspeakable horror" of the tragedy was no less painful 10 years on.

But he said Australians had responded with a shared revulsion to violence that was reflected in the country's laws -- a reference to the tighter gun controls enacted after the 1996 shootings.

The head of the Port Arthur historic site authority, Stephen Large, earlier told CNN that an open invitation had been extended to anyone interested in attending, via national advertising.

Convict trail

It takes about 90 minutes to make the 100-kilometer drive from the Tasmanian state capital of Hobart to Port Arthur, along what the tourist authorities call the "convict trail." The route passes through farmland and vineyards, and offers breathtaking views of the sea and bays.

Along the way, the visitor must pass through Eaglehawk Neck, a narrow isthmus that is the gateway to the Tasman Peninsula. It was here, about 150 years ago, that a line of guard dogs was tethered, ready to attack any Port Arthur inmates seeking to flee north.

Sentries patrolled the area day and night, and there were more guard dogs on platforms overlooking the beach.

At its peak in 1850s, more than 1,100 convicts called Port Arthur home. Many had been shipped out from Britain in the era of transportation to the colonies; others were brought in from various other Australian settlements for committing a variety of infractions.

Life was hard and brutal, though flogging would give way to a form of mental punishment for those sent to solitary confinement in the cruciform-shaped building known ominously as the Separate Prison.

With the end of transportation in 1853, Port Arthur's role turned more to its industrial and agricultural activities - ship-building, timber-getting, brick-making and farming. It was a vibrant and bustling mix of prison and commercial community into the 1860s, but gradually the activity began to fade.

By 1877, the last convicts, enfeebled or insane, had gone and the site took on a new life as a residential community. It was devastated by fires in 1895 and 1897 but survived these setbacks to emerge in the 20th century as Tasmania's premier tourist destination.

Imposing ruin

Arriving at Port Arthur, the visitor finds about 30 buildings, some in ruins and some restored. The most imposing ruin on the site is the partly restored Penitentiary building, which began life in 1843 as a flour mill and granary before being converted in 1857 to house more than 480 convicts. It was gutted by a fire in 1897.

There is another building in ruins at the site - but it is a modern one: the Broad Arrow Café, where most of the victims of the 1996 massacre died.

The café was in the process of being demolished after the tragedy when authorities realized it was also a historical site that should be retained. Now it stands as a silent witness to what happened a decade ago. Behind it is a memorial garden and reflection pool, and a little further back, a timber cross bearing the names of those murdered.

This area was the focus of the commemorative service on Friday, April 28. Australian opera singer Amelia Farruglia, who was in the Broad Arrow café just before the shootings and had not been back since, sang at the service.

Among the speakers was Keith Moulton, father of one of the victims, Nanette Mikac, and grandfather of her two daughters, Alannah, 6, and Madeline, 3, who were all chased down and shot that day. It was their deaths that struck observers as the most callous of Bryant's murderous rampage.

Howard told those at the service that no act of violence could defeat the power of humanity and compassion. He said the creation of the Alannah and Madeline Foundation was now supporting children who were at risk or victims of violent crime.

"It is difficult to imagine a more chilling catalogue of crime," the sentencing judge, Chief Justice William Cox, said in November 1996 as the trial of Bryant came to its conclusion.

"The prisoner killed two persons against whom he held a grudge, and then embarked on a trail of devastation which took the lives of a further 33 people who were total strangers to him."

Cox said while Bryant was borderline intellectually disabled, "he knew what he was doing and that it was something he ought not to do."

Cox, who would go on to become Governor of Tasmania in December 2004 and will attend the 2006 service, sentenced Bryant to life imprisonment on each of 35 murder counts, and ordered that he never be eligible for parole.

Bryant remains in Hobart's Risdon prison, confined to the hospital area because of the danger to him posed by other prisoners.

The Risdon prison authorities refuse to release any information on him, though recent media reports talk of a listless man nearing 40 who, while not insane, is sinking further into mental incapacity.

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