Before the bravery, before heroes were forged in fire, before good men and women died, there was an appalling act of cowardice.
Ali Imron drove the innocuous white Mitsubishi L-300 van through the back streets of Denpasar. Alongside him sat two men, Feri and Arnasan, who were about to become South-East Asia’s first suicide bombers.
But neither was accomplished enough to steer the van and its deadly load through Bali’s heavy traffic. So Ali Imron, a poor boy from East Java raised on a diet of radical Islam, agreed to drive them to a junction of Jalan Legian, the strip of shops, bars and drinking holes in the pumping heart of Bali’s party district.
He knew that once the van rounded the corner toward Kuta, his will would be done. Jalan Legian was a one-way street and the throng of traffic would shuffle toward two of Bali’s most famous night spots, shunting the white van along with it.
Then cowardice took over.
Ali Imron stepped out of the van, leaving the two suicide bombers to their task.
“I knew because of my own doubts, I could never be ready to be the martyr bomber,” he would later tell authorities.
He was about to commit mass murder.
But he could not commit to his own doctrine.
Ali Imron fled into the night. It was just before 11pm on October 12, 2002.
Laura Shuttleworth was in love. In five days she would marry Matt Bolwerk, the high school mate who had become her sweetheart.
Sixty people were coming for the wedding, but Laura and Matt and a handful of family and mates had flown to Bali a few days early to get organised.
After dinner at Kori Restaurant, a Balinese stalwart in Poppies Lane, they headed to the Sari Club — an open-air bar draped with rattan, disco lights and holiday smiles.
“We were sitting right out the front at the table on the decking area,” Laura recalled. “We went across to Paddy’s to have a drink there.
“Then my girlfriend and I said let’s go back to the Sari Club, because we wanted to have a dance.”
Like hundreds of other Australians flitting between Paddy’s, the Sari Club diagonally opposite and dozens of other bars and restaurants, Laura and Matt were a smiling, happy and in love. And a target.
The white van inched closer.
Though she was not to know it, Laura must have crossed paths with David Fyfe.
He had spent the afternoon on the beach but called it a day when his Scottish skin started to feel the effects of the tropical sun. He dined at the Hard Rock Hotel, a monolithic tribute to Americana on Kuta beach, then drifted towards the Sari Club with a mate.
“There was a reason why we left, the music was rubbish, or it was a bit early and it wasn’t quite as busy, but for whatever reason we only had one beer and we just said let’s go across the road to Paddy’s,” David, who lives in Perth, said.
“That decision probably saved our lives, I imagine.”
While David knocked back his second drink at Paddy’s, across the road, a group of young Perth blokes was just warming up.
Bouncers were telling them to pour out their take-away drinks before entering the Sari Club.
The Kingsley Cats is the archetypal Aussie footy club. It thrives on the heady mix of mateship, suburban spirit and the need among young men to let off a bit of steam at the weekend.
Their party had started way back in Australia, several hours earlier, when the players piled into a couple of limos for the ride to the airport. The wheels had been organised by Kevin Paltridge, father of Corey, a dedicated club man.
Now Corey was pulling his best air guitar moves on the Sari Club dance floor as his mates egged him on. It was shaping as a bloody good night.
They didn’t know it, but one horrific moment loomed. They were about to be tested like no men should.
All down Jalan Legian, the horns beeped long and hard, even by Balinese standards. A white van was blocking traffic, crawling, stuttering and eventually coming to a halt outside the Sari Club.
The passenger door opened and a man got out. For a moment, the horns abated. Perhaps the van was broken down?
But instead of checking the van’s mechanics, Feri strode with purpose toward Paddy’s Bar.
Locals are discouraged from frequenting such joints. But Feri swept past a bouncer who raised no complaint and headed for the back of the bar.
Months earlier, Ali Imron had taught him how to detonate a suicide bomb. Feri was a simple rural man but a good student.
It was 11.07pm when terror came to Bali.
For a split second, the suicide bomb fizzed and crackled, lighting up the bar like a giant firecracker. Then the powerful industrial explosives kicked in, spraying flame across the dancefloor as a pressure wave shattered bones and tossed bodies into the air like toys.
“I got blown off my feet,” David Fyfe said. “My ear drums had been perforated. My body and my mind was trying to comprehend what had happened.
“I felt a massive rush of hot air just past my head when I was on the ground, it was like a back draft sort of sound.
“I later found out from the Federal police officer I was metres from where the bomb went off.”
Gary Nash knew straight away it was a bomb. The Navy veteran had been drinking with fellow Como resident Peter Hughes and North Melbourne footballers Jason McCartney and Mick Martyn when a woman’s body flew off the dance floor and knocked him over.
“I don’t know how long I was out for. When I came to, the whole place was on fire and I was saying ‘love, you have to get off me, I can’t get up’.
“I rolled her over and I could see she was shredded, there was hardly anything left.
“She must have been only a foot or two away from (the suicide bomber).”
After wondering about the woman for a decade, Gary last month wrote her a letter:
“Hi Lady. I don’t know your name, where you came from, how old you were, why you were in Bali or if you were married or had children.
“What I do know is that you probably helped save my life by protecting my upper torso and face from more serious burns. You must have been very close to the bomber to have hit me with the force to knock me down and out.
“When I found you lying on top of me after the explosion and asked if you could get up off me, I had no idea of the extent of your fatal injuries. When I finally got out from underneath you and looked in the light of the flames, I almost collapsed back down when I saw how badly you had been injured and had not survived.
“I always think about you and I will remember you on the 12th. I thank you.”
Gary willed himself out of the flames and on to a small retaining wall next to the burning club.
“I thought, ‘I’ll survive this, I’m all right,’ and then I had a look at myself and skin was hanging of my arms and legs, I had a great, big shrapnel wound across my stomach and my ankle had a hole in it.
“I went across the road and sat on a chair in front of the Macaroni Club and looked at the devastation.
“There were people on fire running everywhere, it was just terrible.”
The explosion caught the attention of Laura Shuttleworth’s fiance Matt Bolwerk who was near the front bar of the Sari Club. It is believed Matt rushed not away from the blast but toward it, intent on assisting the injured.
“After the first bomb went off at Paddy’s, he’d obviously run out to see what had happened or to help,” Laura said.
“He was trained in underground rescue because he worked on the mines. He would have gone straight over to see what he could do,” Matt’s mother, Pam, said.
It is an established terrorist tactic to set off small blasts in the hope of attracting people to help or having them flee toward another, bigger bomb. It is devastatingly effective.
Arnasan’s instructions were to wait until the Paddy’s bomb had done its work, then activate a small electronic device. It had been rigged to metres of detonation cord, weaving into and out of plastic filing cabinets which had been filled with more than a ton of volatile explosives and industrial chemicals.
The evil minds who had designed the bomb were prepared for the possibility that Arnasan lost his nerve: the bomb could be detonated remotely by mobile phone and the van doors had been rigged to trigger if opened from outside.
For a few moments, Arnasan held the lives of hundreds of people in his hands.
At 11.08 and 23 seconds, he flicked the switch.
Flames shot up and out. Metal sliced through rattan and timber and lopped off limbs.
Fence spikes were flung like spilled toothpicks, impaling people. Fire sprayed like water from a garden hose. Glass fashioned into shivs found neat incisions in flesh.
A pressure wave tossed cars, body parts, bricks and gnarled metal high into the air. Then it rained down again.
The Sari Club roof caught fire, then collapsed. The street front was on fire, blocking revellers’ escape. There were up to 300 people inside.
Dozens died instantly. Matt Bolwerk was one of them and would later be identified only with the help of DNA testing.
“He was obviously in direct contact with the second bomb that went off,” Laura said.
For Laura there would be no wedding, no honeymoon. Only memories and the knowledge that a good man had gone to help those in peril.
Antony Svilicich thought the Paddy’s blast was a gas explosion. Then “all hell broke loose”.
“Next thing you I know I wake up, lying on the floor, covered in burning embers and debris. I was partially buried under the timbers.
“I managed to get the timbers off myself and got to my feet. I looked around and I couldn’t see anyone, all I could see were spot fires burning everywhere, not a soul in sight.
As people hurled themselves against walls, scrambling over bodies and through choking smoke to escape, Antony found a way out.
“There was this hole in the wall; it was almost a strange, spiritual experience, because it was glowing. It was a split-second decision to go that way. I recall looking down to my left-hand side and seeing a young Asian girl and all I could see was her upper torso and her head.”
Inhaling smoke, he collapsed against a wall then screamed for help. A young Balinese man fashioned a stretcher and carried him to a hotel carpark. It was only when he saw the reaction of people around him that he realised how badly he was burned.
“I looked up and there were these Balinese women looking at me and they all had their hands over their mouths and it sort of dawned on me.”
Antony would spend 44 nights in intensive care in an induced coma with burns to 64 per cent of his body.
As hell raged around them, many mustered enough strength and spirit to perform extraordinary acts of bravery.
Hannabeth Luke was among the first people out of the burning Sari Club, but was halted in her escape by 17-year-old Sydneysider Tom Singer.
“He was calling out gently, not in a very good state,” Hannabeth recounted on the first anniversary of the bombing.
“I asked him if he could walk and he said ‘No”. I said, ‘I don’t care if you can walk or not, you have to stand up now because if you don’t you’re not going to make it at all. So I’ll help you as much as I can.’
“So I picked him up and pulled him away.”
That moment of heroism was captured on film, one of the few images of the immediate aftermath that exists. It was flashed around the world and featured in Time magazine.
What the picture doesn’t tell you is that Hannabeth’s boyfriend Marc Gajardo was somewhere behind her, dead or dying in the inferno.
She spent the next four hours looking for Marc in hospitals and makeshift medical clinics. At dawn, she returned to Kuta to search the bomb site, only to hear the news that Marc’s body had been found at a hospital.
The postscript compounds the tragedy: Tom Singer died in hospital less than a month later, having survived the blast but succumbing to his injuries.
“You left us on Remembrance Day, a day we pay tribute to those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in war,” Tom’s father, Peter, said in his eulogy.
“We lost you in a war, Tom. It’s a coward’s war, where one side holds all the advantage.”
At Bali’s Sanglah Hospital, the Australian nurse held a captive audience. She spelled out the names of the missing, scrawling them on sheets of paper stuck on the wall in the open-air hallway.
When someone was found alive, a tick and the ward number would be placed against their name.
It was the only official record keeping in the first few hours, as the Balinese medical system struggled to cope and routine administrative procedures gave way to an all-hands effort to save lives.
In the morgue, bodies and body parts were laid out in the decrepit facility. And when that soon filled, they were put on tarpaulins and kept cool with blocks of ice.
Vijith Vijayasekaran, then a trainee plastic surgeon from Royal Perth Hospital, and Priya Thalayasingam, a trainee anaesthetist at Princess Margaret Hospital, raced to Sanglah Hospital in the early morning to offer help. They soon marshalled a vast network of volunteers, one standing at each bed monitoring a patient.
The doctors scrawled instructions on the bedsheets of each victim, giving the volunteers and families a crash course in administering fluid vital in keeping patients alive.
“It is up to you to make sure this person gets what they need. Make sure I come back to see them,” they said.
Prime Minister John Howard got the news in an early morning call at Kirribilli House and authorised RAAF planes be readied to fly out the injured. After some swift diplomatic manoeuvring, the Indonesians granted the Australian planes permission to land.
In Perth, a full-scale response to the disaster was under way, with ambulances on standby and hospitals preparing for a deluge of the suffering. Triage teams met planes on the airport apron, deciding who would be treated first and where.
Those cursed with burns were put in isolation. The skin is the body’s first defence against infection — if the burn itself doesn’t kill you, a simple bacteria might. Even with the best of medical care, nothing was certain in those first hours and days.
As the toll mounted and their families begged them to come home, the Kingsley Cats refused to give up on their missing teammates.
Burnt, bloodied and in shock, they wandered the sprawling hospital complex, searching. Seven would die on that trip, but the boys from Kingsley were determined to leave as they had arrived: a band of brothers.
Even as the sarcophagus smouldered, the operation to catch the bombers was bearing fruit.
Police placed a tent over the bomb site and sifted through thousands of gnarls of metal and glass looking for clues and eventually discovered key components of the bombers’ van.
But the Bali cabal had spent considerable energy trying to cover its tracks.
One fragment bore the van’s chassis number, but a file had been used to obscure the digits. But the terrorists had not counted on a separate registration number which police quickly spotted.
It was the Yamaha motorbike that Ali Imron had used to slip away after leaving the two suicide bombers which would prove to be key. The terrorists panicked and dumped the bike outside a mosque. At that moment, a caretaker peered out of the mosque and in the morning inspected the motorbike.
The pieces of the jigsaw puzzle — jagged and misshapen — had been crafted. Now it was up to investigators to put them in place.
The van’s registration number quickly led police to the previous owner who identified the buyer. It turned out to be Amrozi, brother of Ali Imron, who would later become infamous as the smiling terrorist.
The motorbike’s origins were traced to a showroom where staff helped police artists draw sketches of the terrorist team.
Police were closing in and suspected Jemaah Islamiyah, a regional terror network which drew funding and inspiration Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaida.
But JI’s terrorist doctrine wasn’t limited to whispers in the mountains of Afghanistan or calls to arms in the dusty streets of East Java. For years it had been quietly festering in Perth.
The Australian division of JI was known as Mantiqi Four and its leader, Abdul Rahim Ayub, held court in a modest brown brick house in a quiet street in Thornlie.
Abdul Rahim and his twin brother Abdul Rahman were the designated lieutenants of Abu Bakar Bashir, the bespectacled, white-bearded Indonesian cleric who would soon find himself behind bars.
Years earlier, Abdul Rahim had won the heart of a NSW woman and with it, Australian citizenship, before divorcing her. In 1998, he moved to Perth where his children studied at Al Hidayah Islamic School in Bentley and he took work as a religious instructor.
But he and his brother were harbouring dark secrets. While Abdul Rahim spread the doctrine and raised money to send back to JI leaders, Abdul Rahman travelled to Afghanistan and the Philippines to fight as a religious warrior.
Despite an ASIO investigation which identified dozens of JI members, there was no clue that their brethren in Indonesia were about to unleash hell on hundreds of Australians.
Terrorists work in cells — separate divisions — often completing discrete tasks without the knowledge of others working on the
same operation. That way, if one of them is rumbled, he can’t dob in the others. Alas, there was no evidence that members of Mantiqi Four in Perth had any clue what Ali Imron and his cabal were about to do in Bali.
On October 15, as authorities rushed to find those responsible for the bombings, Abdul Rahim walked through airport immigration unchallenged and flew to Indonesia, never to return.
There were 202 people killed that night in Bali. Eighty-eight were Australian.
After the flames came the numbness, the anger and the mourning. And the tenderness, the soothing and the healing.
There was accusation, judgement and punishment. Victims told their stories to hushed courts. And courts gave orders to firing squads.
Three terrorists were executed. Two more died by police bullets during raids. Abu Bakar Bashir, the doyen of JI, is free, jailed then cleared of any involvement in the Bali atrocity.
In Perth, David Fyfe surfs with a prosthetic leg. Laura Shuttleworth has married. And Gary Nash continues to thank the lady who saved him.
Hannabeth Luke has campaigned against the war on terror. Peter Hughes has campaigned to make sure we don’t forget.
Eventually, Antony Svilicich walked out the doors of Royal Perth Hospital to begin life anew.
And Corey Paltridge, the Kingsley footballer who played a mean air guitar? His memory is now inked on his father’s bicep.
So what of Ali Imron, the van driver who turned the corner, but was overcome with cowardice? He claimed remorse, helped police unravel the case. He’s serving a life sentence.
Just like the families of 202 innocents.
Joseph Catanzaro, Liam Croy and Malcolm Quekett contributed to this report