The prelude:

22 February: Fortescue Metals Group reports that it’s on time and on budget to complete its Pilbara Iron Ore and Infrastructure Project. This includes the all-important $1.92 billion rail line to Port Hedland. FMG is racing to meet a 2008 deadline to get its first load of iron ore on the ship to China — and break BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto’s duopoly. — The Australian

Saturday 4 March: Warnings from the Bureau of Meteorology notes that tropical cyclone George is expected to cross into Western Australia later today, as heavy storms continue to lash the Top End. The category-one cyclone is expected to gather momentum as it moves south-west off the Northern Territory coast. ABC

Cyclone George hits WA:

Early Friday, 9 March: Workers at the FMG railway construction camp 1, 105km south of Port Hedland, take shelter in transportable huts, or dongas. 

FMG administration workers had apparently been evacuated earlier to safer sites in Port Hedland.

The huts are later said by WA Premier Alan Carpenter to be able to withstand category-three cyclones. The stronger category-four cyclone flattens the camp. Winds peak at 275km/h. Two people die from cyclone-related injuries, Craig Raabe, 42 and Debra Till, 47. A third person dies from a heart attack. 20 people are injured. Eyewitnesses recall:

What woke me up was just the donga shaking like mad and a lot of people screaming. I didn’t have even enough time to look out the window, it just sort of picked me up and threw me, a big explosion and that’s the last thing I remember. If I only had have known what I know now, I would have got out sooner, I would have driven out myself sooner. — Railway worker Chris Richards

It was horrific, there were people moaning and crying and screaming … We should have been evacuated. We shouldn’t have been there. I won’t be going back, at least not in the cyclone season. — Emil Vranjes, catering worker from Perth

These guys are all prepared to come here and dig up the ground and take the money out, but they are not prepared to put anything back into it for the workers … For them it’s just a cash cow. — South Hedland resident Craig Hill

The aftermath:

10 March: A coronial inquiry is announced to investigate the deaths. WorkSafe WA will also investigate. 

11 March: Australian Workers Union state secretary Tim Daly tells ABC Radio that FMG “had plenty of opportunity to get those people out of that site … They knew well in advance what was coming and I think it’s not only a tragedy but a disgrace that people weren’t evacuated.”

FMG defends its decision. “Hindsight is a great thing, but given the facts that we had at the time, it was the right decision. For anyone who says we didn’t want to evacuate because we didn’t want to slow work down, work would stop on a project like this once a cyclone went through, any way.” — FMG spokesman Julian Tapp

12 March: A Queensland construction worker claims the deaths were avoidable. He reveals to in an audio interview that 100 men and women were forced to return to the camp last on Thursday, 8 March, even though it was already known that the cylone was Level 3 and gathering force. He said the companies involved in the project must publicly explain why workers were not evacuated from the region earlier; according to his account, there were 100 vehicles available at the time to transport them away. — The Courier-Mail

FMG announces its own review into the disaster.

As for the state of the project, FMG is “confident that it has the appropriate contingencies in place to mitigate any risks of an adverse material change to the project’s financial position”, says Tapp. FMG expected expected to dip further into its allowance for project overruns, having already used $56 million of the $198.6 million planned contingency for the project, reports The SMH.

12 March: Share price of Fortescue Metals rises 55c to $18.05

13 March:  According to industry insiders, FMG now faces a significant delay to its railway construction. It will be hard-pressed to meet its tight schedules. — The Australian

13 March: This morning stock drops 45c to $17.60.