Mark Pigott remembers the cries of black crows breaking a heavy silence after the Thredbo disaster.
Pigott, an Olympic skier, watched from afar as rescue workers searched through rubble in the days after the landslide that claimed 18 lives at the ski resort in July 1997.
“Whenever they thought they could hear something, they went: ‘Hush, hush, hush’,” he says.
“You could hear a pin drop across the resort. Often the only thing you could hear [were] the black crows.”
Pigott — who competed in acroski at the 1992 Winter Olympics — was in Thredbo and Perisher for training at the time of the landslide, which decimated two ski lodges just before midnight on July 30.
While staying at the nearby town of Jindabyne, Pigott was woken up by a dawn phone call from his father.
“All he said to me was: ‘Where are you?’ I said: ‘Jindabyne why?’ And he said: ‘Don’t worry, you’ll find out’.
“I ran and put on the TV and, sure enough, there it was.”
Saturday, July 30, at 11:40pm, will mark 25 years since the landslide, one of the deadliest natural disasters in Australian history.
After sunset, skiers will mark the occasion by carrying flares down the slopes, a long-time weekend winter tradition at the resort.
They will remember the victims, who were all part of the tight-knit Thredbo resort community, including hotel staff, maintenance workers, management and housekeepers.
Ski instructor Stuart Diver was the only survivor, after being trapped in a small air pocket under one of the lodges for three days. His wife of him, Sally, was one of the victims.
Mr Diver — who is now Thredbo’s general manager — says Australians continue to have an emotional attachment to his story.
“Everyone remembers where they were on that day, when the landslide ended,” Mr Diver said in an interview on the Better Than Yesterday podcast last year.
“I’m really no different to anyone else, I just happened to go through an unfortunate situation and come through the other end.”
In 2000, state coroner Derrick Hand found the landslide was triggered when water from a leaking main saturated an embankment on the Alpine Way road.
The ground gave way near the Carinya ski lodge, shearing it from its foundations and pushing it onto the Bimbadeen lodge.
Witnesses described hearing creaking, groaning and screeching “not unlike a steam train coming to a halt” in the hours before the collapse.
But it is the silence that stands out in many people’s memories of the aftermath, as rescuers used highly sensitive audio equipment in their attempts to find signs of life.
The rescue effort and resulting investigation have gone on to inform disaster training locally around the world.
In NSW, the first search and rescue course took place a year after the incident and has been running ever since.
There are about 250 Fire and Rescue NSW personnel currently trained, with the organization now accredited with the United Nations International Search and Rescue Advisory Group — one of about 60 teams across the world.
“In 25 years, we’ve certainly come a long way, we’ve learned more valuable lessons,” Assistant Commissioner David Lewis said.
“It was a tragic event but, out of those tragic events, we’ve had great learnings where Fire and Rescue would now be one of the world leaders in urban search and rescue.
“The main thing for us is that we learn from these tragedies so we can ensure that our communities are safer into the future.”
NSW Emergency Services Minister Steph Cooke said Fire and Rescue had faced one of its toughest day since its history.
“On that day our firefighters, 165 of them, were to subsequently receive commendations for their meritorious service during that marathon search and rescue operation faced with incredible challenges,” she said.
“They’re some of the most highly trained in the world and they played that critical role in Thredbo 25 years ago and what the organization has learned has stood them in good stead both now and well into the future.
“It certainly laid the foundation for the organization’s world-leading urban search and rescue capabilities.”
NSW police this week also paid tribute to the rescuers, saying they worked in extremely dangerous conditions but still managed to find Mr Diver “beyond all odds”.
“Confronting rescue crews was the risk of further landslides, uneven rubble, leaking sewage and constant running water,” police said.
“Rescue operators also risked being affected by hyperthermia and frostbite in the winter, sub-zero temperatures.”
Pigott said although people had slowly moved on, the memories of that winter night remained.
“It’s incredibly sad, very raw and personal, because everybody knew somebody involved.”
At 6:10pm this evening the ski resort will hold a flare run and special fireworks ceremony to commemorate the tragedy.