SAD STORY: John Christian Erichs and his sons are buried in the Casino general cemetery.
SAD STORY: John Christian Erichs and his sons are buried in the Casino general cemetery. Samantha Elley

How this Casino hotel licensee became a hero

A TRAGIC event in the life of John Christian Erichs may have changed him from an ordinary hotel licensee into a hero.

Born at Murwillumbah in 1897, John married Clara Jean Rayner in 1928 and they had two sons, John and Ronald.

The family lived at Casino, where the couple took up the licence of the Oxford Hotel in Walker St.

In 1942 it was war time and John was in active service with the Australian Imperial Force in Sydney, while Clara was left to run the hotel.

On September 3, John junior, 8, and Ronald, 6, had met up with their friends Peter Matthews, 7, and Barry Rice, 5, after lunch.

They were on school holidays and had made a habit of exploring the Pidcock Brothers building, a fibro-plaster business, not far from where they lived.

On this day, however, it would be different as one of the boys had managed to get his hands on matches and a packet of cigarettes.

No-one knows exactly how the big fire in the plaster works started, but Casino Fire Station received a called at 2.10pm and a crew arrived three minutes later to fight the blaze.

Firemen didn't know people were in the building until they did their post-fire search of the premises and made a gruesome discovery.

"When firemen commenced to remove some 16 bales of sisal hemp fibre from the 10 x 14 foot room used for storing this product, they discovered in one corner of the room the charred and huddled remains of the little boys," The Northern Star reported.


"The fourth victim ... was lying on a stack of fibrous plaster sheets."

The discovery of a half packet of burnt cigarettes wedged under the arm of one of the victims made the picture clearer.

"It is thought that a match had come in contact with some of the fibre," The Northern Star reported.

"If this assumption is correct the victims never had a chance."

John Erichs was called back from Sydney and had his sons buried in the same coffin.

Fast forward nine years and John had retired from the hotel business and he and Clara had moved to Evans Head.

On March 27, 1951, two 10-year-old cousins, Stanley McKinnon of Evans Head and Jack McNamara of Sydney, were swimming in the surf when they got caught in the undertow.

Evans Head kiosk proprietor Jack Miller, 38, rushed to help the two boys but got into difficulty himself.

John had seen what was happening and dived in to save Mr Miller.

No-one will ever know what made him turn and go back into the surf to save the little boys, knowing he was already exhausted but, most would agree, perhaps the memory of his own little boys weighed heavily on his mind.

He never made it back to shore, succumbing to his exhaustion.

Young Jack McNamara was saved, but unfortunately his cousin Stanley McKinnon drowned.

Some months later John was posthumously awarded a silver medal by the Royal Shipwreck and Relief and Humane Society for his bravery.


He and his sons are buried in the Casino general cemetery.

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