Australia holds national mourning day after fires

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Australians held a national day of mourning for the victims of wildfires that killed hundreds this month, and survivors were promised the nation would support them in the massive task of rebuilding.

Tears flowed as Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said the hellish blazes of "Black Saturday" on 7 February — which killed more than 200 people — had tested the nation's character, and the response was courage, compassion and resilience.

"In recent days we have witnessed unspeakable suffering," Rudd said at a mourning ceremony broadcast nationally. "We have lost mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, we have lost brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, the tiniest of children.

"All these are precious lives. No words can provide solace for grief so personal. But simply know this: You who suffer are not alone," he said.

Rudd said governments at all levels had failed communities hit by tragedy in the past, and this must not be allowed in the fire-devastated towns.

He promised "a solemn contract with each of these communities to rebuild, brick by brick, home by home, school by school, church by church, street by street."

He also announced that the tragedy would be marked each 7 February by the lowering of flags on government buildings to half-staff and a moment's silence.

Thousands of Australians gathered at ceremonies large and small Sunday for victims of the country's deadliest wildfires. Survivors gathered at parks and city residents in public areas where giant screens broadcast the ceremony.

Forensic investigators in the disaster zone took a break from their grim search for more bodies among the ruins. The confirmed death toll stood at 209 on Sunday, but officials said they were still finding bodies in the rubble and the tally would rise.

"These fires have united us all in grief. They have united us all in our response, and they unite us all in the task of rebuilding. Because we will rebuild," Victoria state Premier John Brumby said at the main ceremony.

Queen Elizabeth's daughter Princess Anne flew to Australia to attend the ceremony, and hundreds of survivors were brought on buses from the stricken region.

All of Australia's television networks interrupted their normal programing to broadcast the ceremony live.

Bells rang out across Melbourne and beyond at 11 a.m. to start the ceremony. Inside the venue, a sports stadium, Rudd, Princess Anne and other dignitaries walked two-by-two up to a large wreath standing before a stage, each adding one white flower. A didgeridoo droned solemn notes as firefighters in uniform also added flowers to the wreath.

Helped by years of drought and furnace-like conditions, the 7 February fires ripped across more than 1,500 square miles (3,900 square kilometers), burning all before them. More than 1,800 farms and homes were destroyed.

"We are picking up the pieces after the worst natural disaster in Australia's history," Brumby said at the ceremony.

At a dusty field in Whittlesea, next to a relief center that has served as a hub for survivors who lived in the devastated surrounding towns, about 300 mourners watched the ceremony on a giant screen, some quietly crying as bells tolled.

"It's really hard to find words," Clair Wade, 33, said as she wiped away tears. "You can't imagine how it feels. And these people are living it."

They clutched damp tissues and each other. But despite their grief, all seemed determined to move forward and rebuild their lives. As the ceremony neared an end, they stood together, clapping and singing along with musicians and two fire survivors who performed the popular Australian song, "I am Australian."

"We're all strong and we're country folk," said Lena Petkovsky, 42, of Flowerdale, whose home and pet dog, Cougar, were destroyed in the blaze. "We stick together."

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