THE triple-0 operators who helped save countless lives and homes on Black Saturday have revealed their personal bushfire grief.
Emergency calls soared by more than 1500 per cent when fire tore its devastating path across Victoria three weeks ago.
And now the triple-0 operators - the unheralded heroes of the bushfire tragedy - have told their stories for the first time.
As the link between desperate Victorians and firefighters, the call-takers were the first to experience the statewide panic of February 7.
They have revealed the shock of fielding "extremely panicked" calls from bushfire victims as raging infernos approached and the feelings of helplessness when mobile phones cut dead.
Some call-takers are believed to have shared final, heartbreaking conversations with those who could not escape the blazes.
Yet there was also joy for triple-0 workers during the busiest shift of their careers, when they were able to help save lives and reunite loved ones.
Among them was Sophie Kozaris, 48, who clocked on at 5.30pm on Black Saturday.
"Just opening the door (at work), I thought, 'Oh dear' . . . the board was lit up with calls waiting," said Ms Kozaris, who has worked for the Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority in Burwood for almost five years.
"The initial calls were from people in those houses. (They were saying) 'The fire is here. The fire is here. What do I do? Where do I go?' Taking those were very tough."
"A lot of calls dropped out. And when it's a mobile number we can't do anything with that because we don't know where they are calling from.
"People were saying 'I'm trapped' and 'they are trapped'. Neighbours were looking out for one another. It was all about the people (not property). I heard 'there are people in number 55. Eight people are trapped'. It was really horrible.
"Every time you keyed in an address, it wasn't a house here and a house there (destroyed). It was a whole street.
"As the night progressed, the whole situation changed. We were taking calls from relatives looking for their loved ones."
Ms Kozaris said one of her most shocking calls was from a "very distressed" interstate couple trying to make contact with one Victorian household.
"I looked up the address they gave me . . . it had been hit," she said.
"There were three deceased, one (other person) with bad burns. It was tragic.
"My very next call had to be to the police - but it's so hard not to give anything away.
"I was in shock because it was the first call I had where people were deceased."
Ms Kozaris said she had since played back some of her calls from that fateful day.
"That wasn't a bright idea. Just listening back to my own voice, the despair in my own voice," she said.
"That was echoed, because I could hear that in my colleagues (too)."
Calls to ESTA, which works directly with police, paramedics, fire crews and State Emergency Services workers, reached record levels on Black Saturday.
ESTA spokesman Wayne Debernardi said there were 4202 calls to fire crews on that day, up more than 1500 per cent on the February average. For all emergency services, there were 10,408 calls in only 24 hours and another 8000 on the Sunday.
Triple-0 worker Erika Bachmann, 41, said the first glimpse of the tragedy to follow came late in the morning on February 7.
"11am, I will always remember that," said Ms Bachmann, who has worked for ESTA for eight years.
"That's when it all went off."
Ms Bachmann said the distress calls were constant.
"There were people in their houses, surrounded by fire. People saying 'My husband is out there, we need help, we need help, the fire is coming'," she said.
"But one call I distinctly remember was (from) a lady who was cool and calm - that was extraordinary after all of the other people calling.
"It really got to me. She told me their names . . . three young men who were left on the property to defend their farm and they couldn't get out because they were surrounded (by fire).
"And I don't know what happened to them - that's the really hard part."
As well as taking emergency calls, Ms Bachmann co-ordinated strike teams of CFA and MFB firefighters.
"I don't think people realise we got to the point where we were just running out of trucks," she said.
For the triple-0 teams, who have 365-day access to counselling, the day after Black Saturday was just as painful.
"By the second day, people were finding their loved ones in cars that were burnt," Ms Bachmann said.
"(Some were asking us) 'Why aren't you getting our loved ones out?' But because there had to be a forensic investigation - the coroner had to do what he had to do, the bodies had to be identified - they couldn't (be moved).
"They call us and they are angry at us. But you take it on the chin."
Triple-0 operator Chris Hogeboom said, despite the emotion of the day, he and his colleagues were all able to put their jobs first.
"We are trained for this, so when it hit, we went into work mode," he said.
"You don't get an opportunity to stop and breathe and think about it until it is over."
What sometimes did stop the ESTA workers - stationed at three call centres in Melbourne and Ballarat - from doing their job was people mis-using triple-0.
"Even on the Saturday, we had people ringing up saying 'I want to volunteer'," Ms Bachmann said.
"I've got 15 calls waiting . . . that could be somebody trapped in a house, somebody who could die and these people are taking up emergency calls."
ESTA chief executive Neil Foster said he was extremely proud of his staff.
"They deal with this sort of emotion every day, and that's why they are so carefully selected and trained," Mr Foster said.
"Black Saturday was a true test of their professionalism, and they served the people of Victoria very well."
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