Dirty flood waters swirled around my stalled four-wheel drive pickup truck as I cuddled my 14-month-old little boy, Luke. I closed my eyes, trying to think, but all I could feel was panic rising inside me as quickly as the water.
“What have I done?” I thought, gulping. I’d popped out for nappies, taking Luke, my dog Marley, and friend Donna Lee with me. It was meant to be a quick trip into town. Now we’d been caught in a flash flood and were in danger of being swept away. There was no one else around, and I really didn’t know what to do.
‘It’ll be OK,’ I told myself, putting a hand on my belly. I was four months pregnant, and even though I didn’t show, I felt responsible for that little one growing inside me as well as for Luke and Donna. She was sobbing beside me. “I just want my husband,” she wept. ‘Me too,’ I thought.
I’d left Jack, 23, behind at our home in Wallumbilla, in Queensland, Australia, a few days earlier to visit my mum, Kim, 42. Australia Day was approaching and so I offered to spend it at her place in Biloela, 450km away. But Biloela was experiencing torrential rains.
“It’s nothing like this back home,” I told Mum. Some roads were closed but I wasn’t too concerned even though the forecast said it would be like this for a week. “Looks like we’ll have to batten down the hatches,” I said. We stayed in chatting, watching TV and playing games with Luke. And on Australia Day – January 26 – after four days, I ran out of nappies. Checking online, I saw the road into town was open.
“I’m running in to get supplies,” I told Mum. She pulled a face, staring out the window. “Are you sure, love?” she asked.
I nodded, collecting my keys. “I’ll come with you,” my friend Donna said. She lived next door and had popped over for a visit. I smiled, glad of the company.
So I put my border collie, Marley, in the back of my pickup, Luke in his car seat, and off we went. Everything was clear until we hit water 6km from home on the Dawson Highway. It was so high it reached the side step below the door. It wasn’t deep enough to stop us though; the pickup had been through floods before, so we ploughed on.
A few minutes later, the rain began coming down so hard I had to slow down. Suddenly we came to a log lying across the road. “I’ll see if I can get it out of the way,” I told Donna, pulling up. But knowing that I was pregnant, she shook her head.
“No, I’ll do it,” she insisted, opening the door. Water gushed in. The engine stalled. I turned the key. Nothing. Looking out, I saw water creeping up the side of the car.
“Oh no!” I gasped, turning the key. It was dead, flooded with water. I looked out and saw nothing but water. We were alone, and the flood was raging around us. There was no way out. “We’ll be OK,” I reassured Donna, but there was nothing for it. We couldn’t get out of this on our own, so I rang the emergency services from my mobile. Luke was happily gurgling in his seat unaware of what was happening, but the rain continued to thunder down.
“Help, we’re two women and a baby trapped in a car,” I yelled to the operator, giving our location. “Don’t worry,” she said. “We’re sending help.” Now I was fighting the fear pulsing through me as I knew I had to keep Luke and Donna calm. The water was sloshing around the doors, rocking the pickup.
“Donna, get outside the car and into the back with the baby,” I said. I knew if we tipped, we’d have no chance inside.
Gingerly, she got out on the side step and shuffled to the rear of the open pickup. I slid across to the passenger side, stood on the step with Luke and passed him to her. Then I followed. “It’s OK,” I told Luke, who was babbling away.
The waiting game
We huddled together, but cold and shivering, I was hoping help would arrive fast. Minutes dragged by. The rain soaked us, plastering our hair to our faces, the clothes to our cold skin. Donna was shaking as she rang her husband, Brent. “I love you,” she cried above the roar of the rising flood waters. It had risen up to the door handles and logs and debris were speeding past us, being swept along in the current.
I called Mum at home. “You idiot,” she laughed, not realising how bad things were.
“Mum, seriously, this is not the time for a lecture,” I fired back, explaining our situation. She went quiet. I told her I’d called the emergency services and then I rang Jack. “We’re trapped in the car on a flooded road,” I said. “What were you thinking?” he replied, assuming like Mum I’d done something dumb and wasn’t in real trouble.
I didn’t explain how serious it was. He was four hours away. He couldn’t help. It would just send him into panic. “If anything does happen, you know I love you,” I said, hanging up. I didn’t want him to hear the fear in my voice. I was beginning to worry that the fast current would tip the truck over and we’d be washed away.
I tried to work out how I could save Luke if the car tipped over. My one hope was to swim to some trees nearby so we could cling on to them. But how would I do that carrying Luke? Thankfully, he didn’t understand what was going on. He was happy, busy catching rain drops in his mouth.
Ten minutes inched past, then another ten. Forty-five minutes went by. We were drenched, freezing and fed up. Donna was trembling and it was all I could do to act calm so not to panic her further.
Then, through the sheet of rain, I spotted something. I squinted and grinned. It was Mum and Donna’s husband, Brent, on safe ground 50 metres away. They were waving and shouting out to us but we couldn’t hear them. Relieved, I waved back, then they disappeared.
“Where have they gone?” Donna asked. Just a few minutes later they reappeared in Brent’s small outboard motor-driven dinghy. “Look!” I gasped. I couldn’t believe how brave they were. Brent and Mum were hunched over against the rain and I could see she was holding life jackets.
Battling against the current and dodging debris they got to within a few metres when the outboard propeller hit a log and conked out.
“Brent!” Donna screamed, before we saw their boat being swept away downstream.
Fortunately, Brent managed to power the boat once again and tried manoeuvring it back towards us. But the current was too strong and we lost sight of the dinghy. Terror set in. Images of Donna Rice and her son Jordan, who’d been caught in the Toowoomba floods in Queensland in January 2011, flashed through my mind.
Donna Rice, who was 43, and two of her sons – Jordan, 13, and Blake, ten, were in a car when they were caught in a flash flood. Like us, they’d all got on the roof of her car to wait for help. When rescuers reached them Jordan told them to take his little brother Blake first. As Blake was being rescued, the car tipped and Jordan and his mum were swept away and drowned. Jordan’s heroism had made headlines across the world. I held Luke tighter against me. How had I let this happen to us?
Branches ripped off trees by the water were smashing into us. I was scared that if a large log hit us we’d be knocked over. I checked the time. We’d been stuck here for more than three hours now and Luke was getting restless. He was squirming in my lap wanting to reach out and pat Marley.
Suddenly, there was a noise and a rescue chopper appeared overhead. “They’re here,” I yelled to Donna. She started waving her hands. “Help! Over here!” she screamed.
The down draught from the helicopter hurled a blizzard of branches and leaves at us. Huddled over Luke, I tried to protect him, but he kept popping his head up to see what was happening. I glanced up. A crewman was being winched down on a cable.
“You’re going to be OK,” he yelled. “Put the baby in this!” He handed me a 60cm bag.
I didn’t think twice. I trusted the rescue team but I didn’t have a choice. It was thi or risk seeing Luke get swept away.
Hurriedly, Donna and I put Luke in the bag. As we began to zip it closed, he wailed and struggled. There was no time to comfort him.
I nodded to the crewman, praying the bag would hold shut. “Go!” I yelled, willing them to be safe.
“I’m coming back for you,” the crewman shouted as he was winched up. I saw the bag swaying in the wind and rain, and felt my fingernails digging into my palms as I waited for Luke to reach the helicopter. I grinned when I saw the bag being taken inside. My little boy was safe. Then the crewman was heading back down for us. “You next,” I said to Donna. I watched her being winched up, then glanced at the water. It had climbed right up the doors. ‘Come on guys,’ I thought anxiously as Donna was hauled into the chopper and the crewman came back for me. He landed in the back of the pickup and swiftly placed a tyre-like safety harness over my shoulders.
Just at that moment, a log, swirling in the current slammed into the rear end of the pickup, making it wobble. I knew if I didn’t get out of there soon, it could be too late. “What about Marley?” I yelled to the crewman.
“Got to leave it,” he said. “We don’t take animals.’’ Guilt pinched. “Marley, stay!” I ordered as I was winched away. I’d have to come back for him once the waters subsided.
It took barely a few seconds to be winched up and reaching the chopper door, I scrambled in, eager to see Luke. He was crying, but held out his arms when he saw me. We were safe. “Thank you,” I mouthed to the crewmen as we banked away.
Below us, I saw my pickup in the raging torrent and marvelled at how we’d got out of there alive. I couldn’t believe all this had happened trying to get some nappies.
We were flown to the local hospital for a check-up, but we were all fine. Luckily Mum and Brent had got home safely and I rang Jack to let him know we were OK and would stay with friends.
That night as I watched TV, I gasped. There, on the screen, was the footage of me putting Luke into the bag and him being winched up. The entire rescue was on the TV news. “The only time I get on TV I’m like a drowned rat,” I said, trying to make light of it, but the footage really brought home to me how dramatic the rescue was, and how much danger we’d been in.
Two days after the incident, the waters subsided and I got a call to say Marley had been rescued. Borrowing a car, I drove back to Mum’s with Luke, spotting Mum coming the other way to find me. I flagged her down. “Thank goodness you’re all OK,” she said, hugging us.
I had an emotional reunion with Jack when we got home too. “I’m sorry I didn’t realise the danger you were in,” he said, kissing me and Luke over and over.
We’re so grateful to the crew who saved us, and we’ll be making a sizeable donation to the rescue chopper. It saved our life.
Luke and I were already really close, but I think this has made us even closer. I’ve probably been giving him even more attention than usual since and, of course, he’s loved it. A bit too much.
“I reckon he thinks he’s a bit of a star now,” Jack says. I suppose he is too. After all, how many toddlers have had their face on TV screens around the world?
Robin Collie, 22, lives in Wallumbilla, Queensland