Some beachgoers ignored Tsunami warning signs at Main Beach, Byron Bay yesterday in front of the surf club.
Some beachgoers ignored Tsunami warning signs at Main Beach, Byron Bay yesterday in front of the surf club.

TSUNAMI PANIC WAVE

By ALEX EASTON BANKS and schools were closed and hundreds fled the coast yesterday as the Northern Rivers braced for a tsunami that never arrived.

The Australian east coast was put on tsunami alert yesterday morning after an earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale hit the Solomon Islands.

The alert never translated into a formal evacuation, but that didn't stop banks and some schools at Tweed Heads from closing or from worried parents pulling their children from schools that remained open.

A Department of Education spokesman said no public schools had closed, but was unable to say how many children had been removed by parents.

Byron Community Primary School principal Matt Syme said about a dozen students had been picked up by concerned parents.

The school had taken a 'low key' approach to the threat, while quietly having a bus waiting outside in case an evacuation became necessary.

If the tsunami appeared serious when it reached Cairns, the school would take the students to a parent's property at Coopers Shoot, from which staff would contact other parents. Even after warnings were downgraded, the bus was kept on stand-by at the depot.

Shopkeepers at Bangalow reported a busy morning as people across the region retreated from the coast ? some still wearing their swimmers ? to make sure they were out of the wave's range.

However, not everyone took the warning so seriously. Standing at the entrance to Byron Bay's Main Beach, The Northern Star watched several people walk past signs warning of the tsunami so they could reach the closed beach. Two women stopped to read the sign and laughed before joining the crowd of people swimming and lying on the sand.

Newcastle man Jason Cameron said he and his wife disregarded the warning signs because they had heard a report earlier that the tsunami threatened only the area north of Mackay.

"There's no real warning down here," he said. "The police came down and spoke to people, but there was no siren or evacuation," he said.

Sitting on the lawn behind the beach, Spanish tourists Eduardo Perez and Inma Sorribes hoped the tsunami would come ? so long as it remained small.

Mr Perez said the couple had abandoned plans to go diving because of the tsunami, so instead spent the morning sitting just off the beach with a camera, hoping to grab a photo of it.

Also kept busy were the SES and coastguard volunteers. Byron Bay Volunteer Coastal Patrol radio operators Athol Stroud-Watts and Len Hughes said the tsunami alert had been a useful exercise. The pair had been kept busy calling in vessels sailing just off the coast, but there had been no sign of the wave.

Mr Hughes said wave detectors placed six kilometres off the coast of Lennox Head and Tweed Heads could spot any wave bigger than 3.5 metres, and often picked up big waves during storms. However, the sensors had failed to pick up any hint of a tsunami.

Ballina Coast Guard radio operator Jim Yeo said he logged 42 calls over the morning from people worried about the warning, with concerns ranging from the potential fate of moored boats to people wanting to go for a swim.

Mr Yeo, stationed in the old lighthouse tower immediately behind the beach, conceded the tsunami warning, which was formally cancelled about 2pm, had him worried as well.

"I was thinking 'how can I get out?' (if the tsunami hits) Because I can't," Mr Yeo said. "It's the sort of thing that never occurs to you, and then it does suddenly occur to you very, very clearly."



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