‘It’s in my nightmares’: Bourke Street witness fights for compensation

The aftermath of the Bourke Street massacre is vivid in Chris Harris’ nightmares.

He was working for a charity outside the Bank of Melbourne on January 20, 2017, when James Gargasoulas sped through Bourke Street Mall and ploughed into crowds of shoppers, killing six people and injuring dozens.

Chris Harris witnessed the Bourke Street attack and now has crippling PTSD.Credit:Justin McManus

“I just remember the screaming … we saw the injured and those who were killed. That’s the image that stays with me.”

Struck down with crippling PTSD, flashbacks and nightmares, Mr Harris mustered the courage to reach out for help last year after suffering in silence for years.

Now the 28-year-old from Sunshine is facing a new battle after being denied serious injury compensation from the Transport Accident Commission (TAC) for what he says is an unbearable but invisible injury.

This week Mr Harris will launch legal action in the County Court in the hope of obtaining financial support.

The chaos on Bourke Street on Friday, January 20, 2017.Credit:Justin McManus

“I think I was in shock for the first year. It wasn’t until 2019 when things really fell apart,” he said.

“Initially I was doing really well in sales, I just really stuck my head into it, but I was doing 12-hour days and I was afraid to go home and sleep.

“One day I just woke up and I couldn’t go to work. That was the first time I started lashing out. The aftermath … that’s what I keep remembering. It’s in my nightmares.”

Mr Harris returned to work a few days after the massacre but found it impossible to continue fundraising on Melbourne’s city streets.

Chris Harris says his rescue dog Sandy has been a saving grace in his battle with ongoing trauma. Credit:Justin McManus

He transferred to Sydney in the hope he could escape his triggers. But the nightmares, he said, only got worse.

“It was mainly the lack of sleep, that was the big issue. About a year afterwards is when I really started noticing it and I wouldn’t be able to have a good night’s sleep for five to six days in a row,” he said.

”I had it in my mind that I’ll just get back to work and everything will be fine. But I didn’t recognise that the stress of working was contributing to it, so I just kept trying harder.“

After returning to Melbourne months later, Mr Harris worked in various roles over the following 18 months. He even attempted to join the army, believing soldiers may be able to relate to the horrors he saw.

The bank of flowers the GPO continues to grow.Credit:Eddie Jim

Last year, Mr Harris reached his lowest point and finally visited a doctor for help. Even then, the perceived impact on his masculinity led him to avoid a psychologist referral for many months.

“I thought he’s getting paid to see me, so does he genuinely care? I didn’t want to just be another sad story,” he said.

“Eventually I went and it turns out he’s been an absolute lifeline.”

Mr Harris is one of more than 40 people who have made serious injury claims – totalling $9.6 million – as a result of the ongoing trauma they say they continue to suffer following the Bourke Street tragedy.

Of those, TAC data shows 14 common law claims were for people who were hit by the car, 12 were mental injury claims for people whose family members were killed or injured and 15 were mental injury claims for first responders or people intimately involved.

A TAC spokesman said while they were unable to comment on individual matters, the commission had denied 13 serious injury certificates, all of which involved mental injury claims for bystanders.

Lawyer Jeremy King from Robinson Gill said what Mr Harris witnessed was as bad as it gets.

He said while his client received initial TAC payments to cover some medical bills, he believed Mr Harris’ impairment warranted further support.

“It’s a deeply traumatic incident that affects people in all sorts of different ways and it’s very unfortunate that Chris now has to go to court in order to get compensation regarding the significant impact from one of the worst days in Victoria’s history,” Mr King said.

Gargasoulas was jailed in 2019 for at least 46 years for what was described by the sentencing judge as one of Australia’s worst examples of mass murder.

Mr Harris said he still struggles with everyday tasks and his triggers continue to make living an independent life challenging. He fears travelling in cars and cannot drive.

However, he’s enrolled in a dog-training course and with support from his girlfriend and their two canines Sandy and Captain, he hopes to one day train rescue dogs to become support animals.

“It’s very hard to live a regular life.”

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