Hundreds had taken shelter inside a cinema when they got the worst possible news that fires were closing in. But somehow they were saved.
Tom Haigh remembers vividly the smell of smoke and the feeling of intense heat as he huddled with family inside the tin roof cinema at Mallacoota and the sky turned red outside.
It's the moment he realised his daughters' lives were in danger – a fear he says is "indescribable".
Mr Haigh and more than 500 others had taken shelter on New Year's Eve inside the concrete block cinema at the normally picturesque seaside town. They couldn't see out because the windows and doors had been boarded up to block out smoke from an approaching firefront.
Updates were coming in sporadically – every few hours – when the worst possible news came through.
"Hearing the report that the fire was 'on us' was the lowest point for everyone in the cinema," Mr Haigh says.
"Some people began to cry, some prayed and others began to ready a plan to evacuate everyone from the cinema to a safer location … down to the edge of the inlet where thousands of others were waiting out the fires should things take a turn for the worst."
Thankfully, they didn't.
"Thanks to the heroics of the firefighters and a wind change later coined 'the wind of God' our lives were spared," Mr Haigh said.
The father-of-three, who was holidaying at Mallacoota with his wife Nikki and extended family, detailed the harrowing experience in a letter shared with news.com.au.
The letter, he says, is a thank you to the heroes whose work he witnessed first-hand. Those heroes included "strangers, volunteers, emergency services workers, friends and family" who came together "at a time when the feeling of isolation threatened to kill any remaining resolve".
"If I was ever in doubt about the selflessness of humanity, these doubts were erased in a time of greatest need," Mr Haigh wrote.
"Be they the fellow holiday makers that had helped one another when evacuating the danger of the heavily wooded campground to the safety of the beach; those that ferried families from the beach to the cramped fire shelter as the smoke began to pour into town; the volunteers that taped up cracks in doors and windows as the fire front approached, turning the sky an evil colour of red and filling the shelter with choking smoke.
"Everyone did what they could to make everyone else feel safer in what was a terrifying experience for all involved.
"To simply write about the contribution of the under-resourced volunteer CFA firefighters seems unjust.
"No words could ever describe the heroics and fearlessness of these great people as they stood outside defending the town, and the men, women, children and animals that huddled together praying for safety."
Mr Haigh and his family were transported safely out of Mallacoota aboard HMAS Choules, a navy vessel that was used to evacuate thousands from East Gippsland. They left behind their car, trailer and all of their gear but didn't give leaving a second thought.
Aboard, Mr Haigh says Officer Tony Heppenstall "gave up his room to provide my wife, children, nieces and nephews and extended family with a comfortable place to sleep".
Mr Haigh's story is like so many others who were evacuated from the region either aboard HMAS Choules or the navy's Taipan Aircraft that, according to Victoria Police, evacuated 407 people, including 122 children and 23 infants, from Mallacoota on Sunday during 18 flights over the course of the day.
Tom's thankyou letter in full:
Exhausted but grateful, we stepped off the HMAS Choules. Whisked to safety by people we'd never met and may never see again after 22 hours at sea.
The Choules, an Australian Navy ship designed to accommodate 350 troops, was ferrying some 1000 civilians desperate to escape the ongoing dangers of a bushfire that had been raging on the south east coast of Australia.
Leaving behind the possessions that with perspective mattered little, we had evacuated from the tiny Victorian coastal town of Mallacoota — situated six hours drive from Melbourne and 30 minutes from the NSW border.
An idyllic holiday destination that three days earlier had been ravaged by an unstoppable fire front, just one of a series of fires that authorities estimate had burnt 700,000 hectares of land in East Gippsland.
Whilst relieved to have boarded the warship like vessel, we had heavy hearts for friends left behind awaiting evacuation via air, and those hit hardest, the residents of Mallacoota.
With catastrophic weather conditions scheduled for the following day, many feared the town which had just endured a heartbreaking few days was about to experience the same horror for the second time in the space of a week.
As holiday makers it seems unfair that we were able to escape the carnage with the opportunity to return to a normal life, whilst the residents of Mallacoota who were left in the isolated community without power, fuel or a road out of town, must now begin to rebuild their lives.
The same community that lost and endured so much but continued to offer their support for those stranded, many selflessly rallying to provide free food, water, coffee and supplies rather than focusing on their own plight.
As the father of three young daughters, the week took a toll I could never have imagined. The fear of losing your children is indescribable, a feeling which is only exacerbated by the helplessness you experience as you shelter in a makeshift fire shelter (the tin roof town cinema) as the fire front approaches.
The single and only silver lining to this tragedy is the spirit I saw displayed during the entire ordeal.
Strangers, volunteers, emergency services, friends and family coming together to help each other at a time when the feeling of isolation threatened to kill any remaining resolve.
If I was ever in doubt about the selflessness of humanity, these doubts were erased in a time of greatest need.
Be they the fellow holiday makers that had helped one another when evacuating the danger of the heavily wooded campground to the safety of the beach.
Those that ferried families from the beach to the cramped fire shelter as the smoke began to pour into town.
The volunteers that taped up cracks in doors and windows as the fire front approached, turning the sky an evil colour of red and filling the shelter with choking smoke.
Everyone did what they could to make everyone else feel safer in what was a terrifying experience for all involved.
To simply write about the contribution of the under-resourced volunteer CFA firefighters seems unjust.
No words could ever describe the heroics and fearlessness of these great people as they stood outside defending the town, and the men, women, children and animals that huddled together praying for safety.
Thanks to the heroics of the firefighters and a wind change later coined 'the wind of god' our lives were spared.
The fire front had reached the middle of town, a few hundred metres from where we were huddled, and miraculously changed course. Luck doesn't even come close.
When the announcement was made that the firefront has passed us, the entire shelter applauded as one, so thankful to have avoided what everyone feared most.
The following day the response to the disaster hit full swing.
The town began to fill with Army, Navy, police, and emergency services personnel. All part of a co-ordinated effort to assist those left stranded to escape the lingering danger of the firefront which was expected to return.
Despite this, heavy smoke and the uncertainty of what lay ahead left the town in a state of fear and anxiety.
On Friday, 3rd January my family and I boarded HMAS Choules, bound for the safety of Western Port Bay just three days after enduring an unforgettable nightmare.
Aboard HMAS Choules we could never have imagined the compassion and generosity that would be shown to us by the Navy and Army personnel onboard.
To Officer Tony Heppenstall who gave up his room to provide my wife, children, nieces and nephews, and extended family with a comfortable place to sleep, to Commanding Officer Scott Houlihan who ensured the crowded ship was fed, kept warm and delivered safely to the awaiting support and volunteers at Sommerville – thank you.
I wrote this to express my gratitude for everyone who helped and supported my family and friends, and the many others affected by the fires, and to raise awareness for the devastated communities who are left to deal with the after effects of this terrifying ordeal.
Tom Haigh & Family