Australia holds National Mourning Day after fires

On Sunday, 22 February 2009 Australians held a National Day of Mourning service in the Melbourne Park Rod Laver Arena for the victims of wildfires that killed hundreds this month, and survivors were promised the nation would support them in the massive task of rebuilding.

Tears flowed as The Honourable Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said the hellish blazes of "Black Saturday" on Feb. 7 - which killed more than 200 people - had tested the nation's character, and the response was courage, compassion and resilience.

"In recent days we have witnessed unspeakable suffering," the Prime Minister said at a mourning ceremony broadcast nationally. "We have lost mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers; we have lost brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, the tiniest of children. All these are precious lives. No words can provide solace for grief so personal. But simply know this: You who suffer are not alone," he said.

Rudd said governments at all levels had failed communities hit by tragedy in the past, and this must not be allowed in the fire-devastated towns. He promised "a solemn contract with each of these communities to rebuild, brick by brick, home by home, school by school, church by church, street by street."

He also announced that the tragedy would be marked each Feb. 7 by the lowering of flags on government buildings to half-staff and a moment's silence.

Thousands of Australians gathered at ceremonies large and small Sunday for victims of the country's deadliest wildfires. Survivors gathered at parks and city residents in public areas where giant screens broadcast the ceremony.

Forensic investigators in the disaster zone took a break from their grim search for more bodies among the ruins. The confirmed death toll stood at 209 on Sunday, but officials said they were still finding bodies in the rubble and the tally would rise. "These fires have united us all in grief. They have united us all in our response, and they unite us all in the task of rebuilding. Because we will rebuild," The Honourable Victoria State Premier John Brumby said at the main ceremony.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth's daughter, Her Royal Highness Princess Anne, The Princess Royal, flew to Australia to attend the ceremony, and hundreds of survivors were brought on buses from the stricken region.

All of Australia's television networks interrupted their normal programming to broadcast the ceremony live. Bells rang out across Melbourne and beyond at 11 AM to start the ceremony. Inside the venue, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Princess Anne, Governor-General Quentin Bryce, Victoria Premier John Brumby, Governor of Victoria Professor David de Krester and other dignitaries walked two-by-two up to a large wreath standing before a stage, each adding one white flower. A didgeridoo droned solemn notes as firefighters in uniform also added flowers to the wreath.

Following prayerful reflections, the leaders of Australia's faith communities, including Their Eminences Roman Catholic Archbishop Denis Hart and Anglican Archbishop Philip Freier of Melbourne and His Grace Bishop Irinej of Australia and New Zealand of the Serbian Orthodox Church and others joined in adding flowers to the memorial wreath.

Helped by years of drought and furnace-like conditions, the Feb. 7 fires ripped across more than 1,500 square miles (3,900 square kilometers), burning all before them. More than 1,800 farms and homes were destroyed.

(Adopted from AP Report)