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‘They didn’t deserve to die like this’: Relatives remember the victims of the nursing home fire

Remembered: The victims of the nursing home fire

A victim is led out of Quakers Hill Nursing Home © AAP.

They survived wars, hardship and personal tragedies, and after lives of struggle, expected to spend their final years in peace, surrounded by their loving families. Instead, their lives were stolen in terrifying circumstances.

At 5am on November 18, fire broke out at the Quakers Hill Nursing Home in Sydney. Three people lost their lives at the scene, while many more died afterwards in hospital, their frail bodies unable to withstand the trauma.

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A nurse at the home has been accused of lighting the fire deliberately and has been charged with multiple counts of murder. Here are the remarkable life stories of the fire’s victims.

The war heroine

It was 1944 in Friesland, Holland. Neeltje Valkay and her father were hiding not only Jews, but also Neeltje’s Hungarian fiance, Bela, who fled a forced work camp when he was ordered to fight for the German army. Dutch citizens who hid fugitives put their own lives at risk, but young Neeltje did not hesitate.

On at least one occasion, her quick thinking saved them all. At the stamp of German boots outside, Bela and the others scrambled to hiding places in the walls and floor, but Neeltje had a plan; she wrapped her father in blankets and helped him into a bed in the front room.

“When the soldiers came in to search everything, he started coughing,” Elly, Neeltje’s daughter, tells The Weekly. “The Germans hated disease, so when Mum said her father was very sick and very contagious, they never searched the house. She worried about them and never thought about herself, she was a very selfless woman.”

She thought of others again 67 years later, when a fire started in her bedroom at the Quakers Hill Nursing Home.

Neeltje, 90, was rushed outside suffering from severe smoke inhalation and as the officer went to return to the fire, she whispered to him through her burned throat, “Be careful”.

Often, in the aftermath of tragedies, we focus on the loss of lives that are yet to be lived. After the Quakers Hill fire, we are mourning the deaths of men and women such as Neeltje Valkay, who lived through extraordinary times and overcame struggles few of us can imagine.

They deserved to live out their lives in peace, but instead they suffered indescribable terror and pain.

A lifetime of love

Like Neeltje and Bela, Cesare Galea and his wife, Valentina, were immigrants, fleeing Egypt after World War II. They too settled in Sydney, where they had two daughters, Trish and Rosana. Theirs was also a love story.

When the nursing home fire claimed Cesare’s life, the couple was approaching their 63rd wedding anniversary. Of Cesare’s 82 years on earth, he spent only 20 of them without Valentina.

“She’s just devastated,” says daughter Trish Rynne. “She’s not taking it very well. Mum can still look after herself and my sister and I would take her to see Dad five times a week. Dad’s mind was okay, it was just that he couldn’t walk or look after himself.

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“He would have lived for a while. What he had left was stolen from him. The grandkids have taken it badly, too, because Dad was the one who picked them up from school for us — he spoilt his grandkids.

“He should have slipped away peacefully in his sleep. He shouldn’t have to suffer and struggle like he did. He fought a good fight, he didn’t want to leave us, but in the end, it was too much for him.”

Read more tributes to the victims of the Quakers Hill Nursing Home fire in the January issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly.

Subscribe to 12 issues of AWW for one year for only $69.95 and receive a Natio Soft Focus Mineral Makeup Kit valued at $49.95.

Video: Mourners pay tribute to nursing home fire victims

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