Friday 20 January began much like any normal working day.
And come early afternoon, colleagues in offices across Melbourne began floating ideas as to where they would each break for lunch.
Little did they know, these choices would make or break lives, and change them forever.
Pakenham mother of two Sara Saunders had planned to spend a Myer voucher at the Bourke Street store but, for a reason that she cannot recall, Sara made a last minute decision to fetch lunch from the Emporium with her colleagues instead.
On her way back to the office, she walked down Swanston Street and chanced upon an empty and eerily silent Melbourne CBD.
No more than 10 minutes beforehand, a man had hooned around the main intersection at Flinders Street Station and driven erratically up “car-free” Swanston Street, before striking innocent pedestrians with his car at Bourke Street Mall.
“It was one of those sliding door moments,” Sara told the Gazette, reliving her experience.
“I don’t remember exactly what made me change my mind about going to Bourke Street. I think I just felt tired and couldn’t be bothered going shopping.
“It was really quiet and the streets were empty. Nobody actually knew what had happened. People were checking their phones for news updates but couldn’t find anything.
“It had just happened.”
Sara works near the city square, not far from Flinders Street Station and her colleagues watched in horror as the car went flying up Swanston Street.
The avid blogger detailed her experience on her Facebook page later that night.
“No one day can we ever be secure, no one day you can ever assume you are safe from harm, from those who mean to harm – for the sake of it,” Sara wrote.
“Never assume you have a tomorrow, a next week or next year. Today tells us to make the most of life. Do that thing you’ve always wanted to do today, say I love you today, kiss the ones you love, say sorry, forgive… tomorrow might be another tragedy.”
It was not until Sara reached Bourke Street Mall as she walked down an empty Swanston Street, that she saw people “everywhere”.
There were about 20 police officers wearing riot control masks rushing in and out of the scene and a helicopter could be heard hovering in the sky.
Sara could recall seeing about four ambulances and maybe a fire truck as well.
“It was all pretty crazy. Everyone seemed zombified in the shock of it all,” she said.
“Everyone was trying to work out what was going on and there was one man who seemed to know a bit more.
“But I almost didn’t believe him. It was almost more believable that there could have been a crazed gunman than a crazed guy in a car running people over.
“It sounded like something someone had made up.”
Sara said she saw many tourists who she determined must have been visiting Melbourne for the Australian Open tennis tournament.
She remembered feeling particularly sad for them as they found themselves in amongst a terrible tragedy in an unfamiliar city.
“I’ve never seen it so busy in Bourke Street Mall during the week,” Sara said.
“It was like the crowds of people you see before or after a footy match.”
It was not until much later that night when Sara watched the news bulletin that she began to understand the full scale of what had happened.
She said she became obsessed with watching every segment of coverage to help piece it all together in her mind.
“Listening to some of those reports… it just made me want to cry,” Sara said.
“The feeling afterwards was just this sense of appreciation.
“It could have happened to anyone.”
In the aftermath, Sara said people were quick to point the finger.
She said the blame on police not reacting quickly enough clouded the reality of what she witnessed with her own eyes.
“At the end of the day, police responded so quickly,” Sara said.
“We couldn’t have been there more than 10 minutes after it had happened and everything was so organised.
“It’s moments like this that I’m so amazed by what the police do. It would be so hard. I’m really thankful for the hard work they do.”
Sara told the Gazette that the tragedy had brought out the best in people. She saw countless strangers helping, protecting and supporting one another.
In Sara’s own words: “Unity, compassion and a willingness to help – that is what shone through.”
Five victims have died following the car rampage including three-month-old Zachary Bryant, 33-year-old father Matthew Si, 22-year-old Jess Mudie, and 10-year-old Thalia Hakin whose mother and sister remain in hospital with injuries.
Another victim, a 25-year-old man, has yet to be named.
Flowers have since been laid at the mall in memory of the victims of this tragedy and a public vigil was held the following Monday at Federation Square.
The accused killer – 26-year-old Dimitrious Gargasoulas from Windsor – has been charged with five counts of murder with other charges pending.
Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton said police had received more than 300 witness statements.
It is alleged the man deliberately struck a number of pedestrians in the vicinity of Bourke Street and Queen Street about 1.30pm.
Police shot the man who was the sole occupant of the vehicle and he was taken to hospital for treatment.
The Labor State Government has responded to the tragedy by establishing a “night court” for magistrates to hear bail requests over weekends and after hours.
“It’s our job to take the frustration, anger and the deep sadness that Victorians feel after the Bourke Street tragedy and to make sure that’s put into reform and change,” Premier Daniel Andrews said.
“It is very clear that our bail system needs a major shake-up and we are getting the best expert advice to make sure we get this right.”
La Trobe MP and former police officer Jason Wood has supported his Liberal colleagues’ calls for stronger bail laws.
“We need a ‘one strike and you’re out’ and presumption of remand for all violent offences approach to bail now,” Mr Wood said.
The accused murderer has been remanded to appear in court in August.
For more information or to assist victims and their families, visit http://www.vic.gov.au/bourkestreet.html.
There is a Victims’ Helpline on 1800 819 817.
Originally published at Pakenham Gazette.