The last acts of courage and sacrifice by parents desperately trying to save their children as a deadly flash flood ripped through south-east Queensland in January fell like repeated emotional hammer-blows on survivors in the public gallery of the Brisbane Coroners Court yesterday.
The speed with which the disaster tore lives and homes apart on January 10 was replicated by the speed at which police summarised the circumstances of the deaths for the coroner. After months of investigation by hundreds of police, the final desperate minutes of 14 people’s lives were summed up for the court before the morning tea break, in as little as three minutes each.
The court was told that none of the triple zero calls from the people in peril in the worst-hit town of Grantham could be responded to, except by helicopter. But 000 operators in some instances advised people to stay indoors to avoid being swept away.
Videos were played to the court showing houses subsiding into fast-flowing water, people on cars being carried away and stark cement slabs left behind after houses had been destroyed.
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After one hour and 15 minutes, the litany of death was over and the stunned survivors of Grantham filed from the court wondering how so much grief and suffering had been summed up so neatly and quickly.
Among the courageous final deeds to emerge for the first time since the disaster were those of racing steward James Perry, 39. He was last photographed floating helplessly on top of his white four-wheel drive with his wife and eight-year-old son Edwin after their vehicle was swept from the Warrego Highway at Helidon and the car suddenly disappeared beneath the torrent. Video of the family filmed by a helicopter news crew was broadcast around the world, conveying the horror of the disaster.
James’s wife Jenny Thorncraft was rescued and told police of the family’s decision to get in the water and hang onto the vehicle as they headed for turbulent water hoping they would be able to hang on despite there being a live electricity wire dangling in the water.
The little boy’s last vision of his father was as the boy was lifted onto a blue cattle feeder floating in the water and survived.
The father was not able to get himself onto the cattle feeder. His body remains missing.
Grantham couple Matthew and Stacy Keep lifted their three young children onto the kitchen bench of their house as the deadly torrent suddenly smashed through the doors at 3.30pm on January 10. All three were swept from the bench.
The couple tried desperately to reach the children and also to help their mothers, who were both at the house.
Stacy, who was six months pregnant, rushed to rescue her frail mother, floating her baby on a large piece of plasterboard and then taking the baby in her arms, being swept from the house and grabbing a downpipe until she could not hold on any longer.
Matthew’s mother Pauline Magner drowned and was found eight kilometres downstream at Gatton.
In an extraordinary act of courage, Matthew Keep returned to the flooded house and found his two children, Madison 5 and Jacob 4, alive.
No trace of Stacy’s mother Dawn Radke has been found. The body of Jessica, who would have turned two years old on January 23, was found at 1.37pm on her second birthday, 37 kilometres downstream of her home.
Next, the desperate attempts of volunteer firefighter Danny McGuire to save his wife and three children by getting them in a rural fire truck were retold. As the truck was being swept away, McGuire phoned the head of the 11 local fire brigades to alert them that Lockyer Creek had broken its banks. His wife phoned 000 for help but the call dropped out.
McGuire thrust one of his children into a tree and was swept from the truck cabin himself as the current swirled into the truck drowning his wife and two children.
The bodies were recovered from the truck and McGuire identified them all two days later.
Questions of who, when, where and how were all answered. But for many families, the why remains unanswered.
The empty, numb, silence of death descended.