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Pain of Port Arthur massacre remains 20yrs On

Fencing in a paddock of his 324-hectare cattle farm on the Tasman Peninsula, Neil Noye heard a siren travelling south at high speed.

A couple of minutes later he saw an ambulance and a police car whiz past.

"I thought to myself: `I better find out what's going on'."

The news that would greet the then-Tasman Council mayor would change his life, and the lives of those in his small community.

It was April 28, 1996, and just a few kilometres away at the Port Arthur historic site, a gunman had gone on a bloody rampage.

At the time the incident was acknowledged as the world's worst massacre, with 35 people killed, 23 injured and an untold number of others left emotionally scarred.

"The news that filtered through at first was that six or seven people had been shot," Mr Noye, now aged 84 and retired, told AAP.

"By that afternoon we were talking to reporters who had got through the cordon, and we were getting the full story."

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A tourism hotspot about 90 minutes drive from Hobart, the picturesque historic site, nestled in a bay, is dotted with convict ruins on a sea of lush grass and well-kept gardens.

Usually the sound of native birds is interrupted only by chatty visitors and the odd maintenance vehicle.

But on this fateful Sunday the peace and quiet was broken by the stark and unfamiliar crack of gunfire.

That was back in the days when visitors could drive into the site and pull up quite close to the attractions, and that's what Martin Bryant did, before arming himself with a rapid-fire weapon and entering the popular Broad Arrow Cafe.

It was lunch time.

The shooting was indiscriminate: men, women, children of all ages and nationalities.

Carolyn Loughton was shot in the back, her 15-year-old daughter Sarah was shot in the head and killed.

"It was just this immense explosion," Ms Loughton told SBS of the moment the shooting started.

"I'm seeing bits of the walls coming away and then I saw him with this massive, massive gun up shooting people."

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Countless survivors have told how they played dead on the floor as the gunman stalked his victims.

There are unconfirmed reports Bryant had previously been thrown out of the cafe for trying to sell crayfish to patrons.

On his way to Port Arthur Bryant had stopped at a bed and breakfast property, Seascape, where he killed the owners, David and Sally Martin.

It later emerged the couple had refused Bryant's request to buy their nearby farm.

Bryant has never offered an explanation for his actions, but there is speculation, including from investigators, that his murders were sparked out of retribution for grievances and others were collateral damage.

Local woman Nanette Mikac had been visiting the historic site that day with daughters Alannah, six, and Madeline, three.

As the shootings took place the young mother instinctively led her girls along a road leading away from the site.

Thinking she must have almost made it to safety, Bryant's yellow Volvo had come along.

The gunman had stepped from his car before shooting dead Ms Mikac and then each of her daughters.

"The Mikac girls, I'd been playing with them on the Saturday night - there was a concert on and their father was in the concert and I was looking after the kids," Mr Noye said, shaking his head.

"So sad. So very sad."

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As Bryant drove away from the three lifeless bodies the death count stood at 27.

A short time later he shot and killed the four occupants of a car arriving at the historic site, before stealing their BMW.

More people would die and a man was taken hostage as the gunman made his way back to Seascape, where he was holed up for 18 hours.

The police car Mr Noye saw pass his property was just arriving at Port Arthur, but the damage was done.

By the time Bryant emerged, on fire, from the burning Seascape cottage which he had set alight, news had spread around Australia and the world, of mass murder at sleepy Port Arthur.

In the days and weeks that followed the peninsula crawled with reporters.

"I'd get phone calls from BBC London interrupting their live soccer broadcast, to go directly to the `mayor of Tasmania'," Mr Noye said.

"The more you tried to tell them you weren't the mayor of Tasmania, the more confused they got."

Grief counselling was offered to residents as the local economy hit the doldrums.

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Then-prime minister John Howard used the massacre to gather support for tighter gun laws, which passed parliament.

Bryant was locked up in Hobart, and questioned by police.

Seven months later a judge ordered he serve 35 life sentences plus hundreds of additional years, without the chance of parole.

He will die in jail.

Many others are serving a life sentence as a result of his actions.

Mr Noye knew eight of the people Bryant killed at Port Arthur.

He will not be attending a commemorative service at the site to mark the 20th anniversary, but appreciates that others want to.

"There are people who have lost loved ones and they are still hurting and this is going to really liven it up again," he said of the plans for April 28.

"Twenty years on, it is raw."

AAP

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