By Nelson Groom and Jack Rees
A woman who lost both parents to the ravages of asbestos has risked her life to return to the ‘ghost town’ mine which killed them.
Aussie Heather McGarrity, 69, left the remote mining settlement of Wittenoom in Western Australia before the threat of exposure to the deadly mineral was known.
But after losing both her parents to lung disease and developing the same condition herself, she made a dangerous pilgrimage to the abandoned asbestos-riddled town to get closure on her loss.
The mum-of-four’s eerie photographs show the once-thriving town – now one of the most contaminated places on earth, known as Australia’s Chernobyl – has been reduced to lifeless wasteland.
Retired teacher and grandma-of-six Heather said: “For years I’ve wanted to go back and see what destroyed my family and is now destroying myself.
“I lost my mother, father and my stepfather to asbestos, and I’ve now been diagnosed with lung disease myself.
“I wanted to find my old house and bury the hatchet, I wanted answers. But all the old businesses were gone, and I couldn’t find my old home.
“It was so haunting looking at the dilapidated houses. Some of them were still occupied by people who couldn’t let go, but nobody answered their doors.”
Heather moved to Wittenoom in 1961 when her father took up a job carting around the deadly dust, before returning to Perth a year later.
When the health risks of asbestos came to light and the mines were slowly shut down, most of the population of Wittenoom began packing up to depart.
Little did they know that many of those who left were doomed to die of lung disease and mesothelioma decades later from the asbestos in their lungs.
Wittenoom grabbed headlines again this month after the government was forced to call on thrill-seekers to stop visiting the town in a disturbing new online trend.
A number of videos have appeared online of people entering the old mines to emerge covered in blue dust – with some even showing children swimming at Wittenoom Gorge.
Heather, who was diagnosed with lung disease in 2000, said she had nothing to lose by returning to the contaminated town – but she was offended to see the reckless craze.
Heather said: “There was no health warnings, nobody told us it was bad for you until after we left.
“I was devastated to learn that. Compensation doesn’t bring people back, it doesn’t bring people back.
“I think it’s disgusting that people were sent to work there. There was never any masks, my father used to come home covered in the stuff.
“Once you’ve got it, it can’t hurt you anymore.
“But the fact that people are going there for glory or online fame is pretty disgusting, it doesn’t please me.”
The WA Government warned on its website remnants of blue asbestos were still present throughout the region and posed a serious risk to humans.
It strongly advises people not to travel to Wittenoom, which has been described as “the greatest occupational health and safety tragedy in Australia – comparable to the Chernobyl and Bhopal catastrophes”.