By GREG ROBERTS in Childers

Tearful tributes from numbed survivors
The passage of a couple of days has not eased the pain. "You see it on the television and in the papers and it keeps coming back to you," said Keith O'Brien, a 22-year-old British backpacker who escaped from Friday's inferno by squeezing through the bars of his bedroom window.

Mr O'Brien knew two young British men who died in the fire.

"We had travelled together. They were the life and soul of the party. They always had smiles on their faces. I keep seeing those faces. They won't go away."

Like the other 69 survivors, Mr O'Brien considers himself fortunate. "I was going to go skydiving at Noosa, but there's no way I'll tempt fate now."

For Hill Vaughan, 30, of Sydney, the tragedy is still sinking in. "I wake up and then I remember what's happened. I look at what's left of the hostel and there's four walls and nothing in it and I can't believe it. I keep telling myself to try and relax."

Neil Griffith, 24, another British backpacker who almost died in the inferno, is trying hard to put it behind him. "You hear car tyres on gravel and the sound reminds you of the fire. All these little things keep reminding you. I just feel numb."

Over the weekend, some survivors turned down the offer of a free motel bed, electing instead to sleep on mattresses on the floor of the community hall. They could not face being in a small, confined space.

A bus seat opposite the hostel has become a shrine. Amid the growing pile of flower tributes are a can of beer and some tomatoes and bananas.

"Not Fair!" exclaims one card. Another says: "There is a terrible sadness in our hearts that you are not here to live the day with us." And another: "You touched our lives in a small but never forgotten way." Many of the messages are in foreign languages.

Small groups of survivors visit the shrine. Some return repeatedly. The tears flow freely. Some stand on the footpath, their faces etched with pain, simply staring at the burnt-out shell that was the Palace Backpackers Hostel.

The local Anglican priest, the Rev Gavin Talbot, who is counselling survivors, said: "They are trying to share their grief with each other. Each one is coping with it as best they can, in their own way."

Their only consolation is that the 2,200-strong community of Childers has been so generous in helping them.

At the community hall there is a constant procession of citizens bearing gifts of food and clothes.

Survivors are receiving all manner of assistance. Typical of the largesse is that offered by the local print shop, which gives them free Internet access and faxing facilities so they can contact home and recover lost travel documents.

"You don't even think of making money out of a situation like this," said the shop proprietor, Ms Debbie Williamson-Gleich.

"Everyone has come together to help these poor people. We don't believe that they should want for anything."

The Irish Ambassador to Australia, Mr Richard O'Brien, said in Childers yesterday: "This community has responded magnificently, with so much warmth, it has obviously helped the victims very much."

For the town itself, there is a grieving process. "It is still absolute shock and horror for this community," said the Mayor of Isis Shire, Mr Bill Trevor.

"These were more than just itinerant labourers. They had become our friends. What happened is bad enough, but if it is proven that the fire was deliberately lit, I don't know how we will cope."