This doesn’t look good, I thought.
By now, David had left the truck and was making his way to the top of the bank.
‘Tell him to come back or I’ll shoot him dead!’ the man warned.
David came back and the man then forced us onto the ground behind his ute.
It was the first time I could properly look at the bloke. He had a crazy look in his eyes.
Next, he pulled nine children from the back of the car, all chained together.
They looked petrified as he put them by the gutter. He also dragged out a man, who was pushed to the ground.
‘I’m Rob,’ he whispered.
He explained he was a teacher and the kids were his pupils.
‘That man turned up at our classroom this morning and took us all hostage,’ he said.
I tried to keep calm, but I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This man was clearly very dangerous.
Holding the gun to our heads, he padlocked David, Rob and me to the back of the ute.
Both vehicles were damaged, so I wondered what he was going to do.
Half an hour later, a car pulled over and I was surprised to see it was my workmate, Greg.
The bloke grabbed Greg and chained up him and his passenger with us.
‘Bit of a mess here,’ I whispered to Greg.
An hour passed, then two women drove by in a campervan and pulled over to check on us. But the man just took them hostage too.
He now had 16 of us.
Taking the women’s van, the man forced us all inside.
Some of the kids were crammed in the front.
Us blokes remained chained up and were put in the back with the two ladies and the rest of the children.
None of us dared to make a sound.
‘Move and I’ll shoot you,’ the man shouted.
I felt so helpless and he had complete power.
Driving for over an hour, our kidnapper eventually pulled up to a spot in the bush where he’d set up camp.
Holding us at gunpoint, he pulled out the men and chained us around a tree.
‘What’s this all about?’ Rob asked the man.
‘I’ve done this before, I’ve got an accomplice helping,’ he muttered.
I realised he’d had a plan and our crash had spoilt it.
That night, the women stayed with the kids by the van. Luckily, our abductor had biscuits for us all to eat.
Only one of my hands was tied up, so I could eat my snacks with the free one.
Our kidnapper had turned on the radio and was obsessively listening to the news to see if they mentioned the abduction.
When it was eventually announced, a huge smile spread on his face, like he was delighted.
I was constantly alert, racking my brain to think of ways to get out of this.
Theresa and the kids will be so worried, I thought.
Whenever someone needed to go to the toilet, the man would unlock the chain and accompany them to the bush with a gun.
When I needed to go, he let me chain myself back up.
This is my chance, I thought.
As I wrapped the chain round my hand, I carefully left it looser than before and twisted a few links around each other so it looked tighter.
The night dragged on and I stayed awake, watching the man’s every move.
When he fell asleep, I worked quickly on the chain, twisting and wriggling until my hand was free. I couldn’t believe it!
‘I’ve got my chains off, I’m going to get the cops,’ I whispered to David.
Trying to make as little noise as possible, I removed by boots and waited for the breeze to pick up so that it could cover my footsteps.
Then, I carefully crept through the bush.
My heart was pounding in my chest. If he woke up, I knew I’d be dead.
Everything was pitch black, but I managed to work out a track. Once I knew I was far enough away, I started sprinting.
I remembered a house we had driven past on the way to the campsite, about 8km away.
When I spotted it, I felt exhilarated. Knocking on the door, a man answered.
‘Have you heard the news about the kids being kidnapped?’ I panted. ‘Please, I need to call the police.’
Frantically dialling Triple-0, I explained the situation, and when a police car arrived, I jumped straight in and directed them to the camp.
But as we turned into the site, the kidnapper was driving straight towards us – with everyone in the van!
The police had to quickly steer out of his way, before turning around and chasing him onto the highway.
Sitting in the back of the car, I couldn’t believe what was happening. As we got nearer, the kidnapper started firing gunshots at the police.
But the police hit back and managed to shoot one of the van’s tyres, causing it to swerve and stop.
The kidnapper was also shot in the leg, and officers arrested him.
Once I knew it was safe, I ran to the van too.
To my relief, everyone was there and they were all okay.
As I gave David a hug, the other hostages thanked me.
It was finally over. Police took David and me home.
‘I thought your van had broken down!’ Theresa said when she saw me.
When I told her the story, she was stunned.
‘Thank God you’re all okay,’ she cried.
I found out that the man who’d put us through hell was Edwin John Eastwood.
He’d been serving time in Geelong Prison for the 1972 kidnapping of a teacher and six students in Faraday.
But in 1976, Eastwood, 26, managed to escape jail and two months later, he carried out this second kidnapping.
Wearing a balaclava, Eastwood broke into Wooreen Primary School, in Gippsland, Victoria, on 14 February, where he abducted Rob, 20 – who was just nine days into his first teaching job since finishing university – and nine innocent kids, aged seven to 11.
He’d planned to hold them hostage and demand ransom money, but then he’d collided with David and me and everything had changed.
For Rob and the kids, the whole terrifying ordeal had lasted 21 hours.
That November, Eastwood appeared at the Supreme Court and pleaded guilty to multiple charges, including 16 counts of kidnapping, three of theft of a motor vehicle and three of using a firearm with intent to avoid lawful apprehension.
He was sentenced to 21 years in jail with a non-parole period of 18 years.
I got on with my life, but that day changed me forever.
Parents are always protective of their kids, but it made me extra cautious when it came to my children and grandkids.
Then this year – 43 years since the kidnapping – I received a letter, saying I was being awarded an Australian Bravery Award. Rob had kindly nominated me, which was completely unexpected!
‘I’m always so thankful that you were there that day,’ Rob explained.
I’m not one to like a fuss, but I really do appreciate Rob thinking of me.
What happened that day was truly awful, and I’m just relieved that we all made it out alive. ●