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The events that unfolded one evening in Kuta, Indonesia, thrust the Northern Territory and its health responders into the international spotlight – and demonstrated to Australia the importance of being equipped, prepared and ready for sudden onset disaster.

As the nation remembers 20 years since the tragedy of the Bali bombings, this turning point similarly recognises the evolution of Australia’s disaster response and the role of the National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre (NCCTRC), which was established as a result of the response efforts in Darwin, particularly at Royal Darwin Hospital.

Shortly after 8pm on Saturday 12 October 2002, a series of explosions shattered Paddy’s Bar and the Sari Club in Kuta, Bali.

The blasts, shrapnel and following fires killed 202 people, including 88 Australians, and injured hundreds more.

The tragedy of the first Bali bombing has become visceral in Australia’s modern history, the first time our country felt the impacts of global terror in the region.

Australia’s NCCTRC Executive Director Professor Len Notaras AO says Darwin became a true humanitarian rescue “gateway” and a platform of hope during the response effort.

More than 60 severely injured patients were evacuated to Royal Darwin Hospital, with 20 admitted to the intensive care unit.

The disaster operation was successful with all patients admitted, resuscitated, emergency treatment performed and then evacuated to interstate burns units within 36 hours.

“Darwin is a place of resilience – and has been historically,” Professor Notaras says.

“The response to the Bali bombings in 2002 demonstrated how we as a small part of our nation were able to apply ourselves and respond at a critical moment in Australia’s history.”

He recalls the moment a man presented at the Royal Darwin Hospital on the Sunday 13 October with burns and lacerations to the body after returning from Indonesia, and describing the traumatic and chilling event that had occurred in Bali.

“We didn’t have Twitter or 24/7 news at that point in time, so everything that had occurred in Kuta was yet to reach our shores, until this man arrived in our care,” Professor Notaras says.

“Suddenly, our staff at the hospital had to prepare for the likelihood of a mass casualty event and an influx of traumatically injured patients. I knew we could rise to the occasion.”

NCCTRC Manager of Strategic Projects Ronnie Taylor was a nurse practitioner in the emergency department at the time of the Bali bombings.

“There was a lot of responsibility placed on the nursing team that night,” he says.

“We were running out of dressings, the ambulance service was working around the clock, our fax machines just didn’t stop and the switchboard was inundated with calls from distressed family members searching for their relatives.

“It was a full community effort. The way Darwin and the hospital staff responded to the bombings is a story of rising to an unexpected tragedy and it truly felt like the entire nation stood behind us and supported everything we did in that moment.”

Twenty years on, Professor Notaras says the immediacy and professionalism of Darwin’s response was instrumental in the establishment of the NCCTRC.

“There are plaques all around the country commemorating the 2002 Bali bombings, but here in Darwin the NCCTRC is a monument to what occurred that day and the efforts of the incredible practitioners who responded.

“We as an organisation are a quiet monument to a significant, tragic and remarkable part of Australia’s history.”

In the years that followed the Bali bombings, NCCTRC has become a key component of the Australian Government’s disaster and emergency medical preparedness and response capability to natural, man-made and public health emergency of local, national and international significance.

Today, the NCCTRC coordinates and deploys the AUSMAT (Australian Medical Assistance Teams) on behalf of the Australian Government.

In the past three years, the focus has shifted to public health emergencies, such as the measles epidemic in Samoa, as well as to domestic deployments including the catastrophic bushfires in Victoria and New South Wales in January 2020, and Australia’s covid-19 response.

Ms Taylor says she is proud to not only have been involved in the Bali bombing response efforts, but to be part of the NCCTRC’s story from inception.

“We made a difference to the people who presented at the Royal Darwin Hospital that night,” she says.

“We saved lives, and I truly believe that is still what we do when NCCTRC and AUSMAT are requested to assist and support in the wake of a disaster in the Asia Pacific region.

“It was an event that imprinted on the health community. Now after 20 years, I am so proud of the way the centre has grown and how our vast AUSMAT and disaster response family across our region has developed and excelled as a result of such a tragic event.”