LETTER | Family's warning after traumatic creek experience

LETTER TO THE EDITOR

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Let me start with saying that I am truly grateful to be here to tell this story. I wish I didn’t have this story to tell, but it is my story, and it needs to be told as it may save somebody else’s life.


On St Paddy’s day, 2019, my husband and I decided to take the kids on their kayaks for the first time to a local creek. We have taken the kayaks previously in search of safe water to kayak in and have decided against it on these occasions for safety reasons such as the water was flowing too fast, it’s too deep or it’s too murky. We have both been watching upstream from Odonohue’s Creek/causeway for some months now and both decided it is an ideal spot for kayaking with the kids. Extremely calm, very slow flowing and shallow (waist deep) for us to walk next to the kids while they are on their kayaks. So, in we go, about 30-40m upstream from the causeway, where it was beautifully calm and clear. It was the perfect spot for it. I’ll also describe the causeway before I continue any further.

From upstream, standing in the water, the road is just above my head height, say 2m high from the bed of the creek. There are a series of culverts situated across the entire width of the creek beneath the road approximately 1m high, with water spilling just over the bottom of them from upstream to downstream where the water gently cascades over them falling approximately 30-50cm creating some white-water over the rocks downstream into the creek.

Moving on; my two-year-old daughter decided she wanted to get off her kayak and get in the water with me. So, we all suggested for my husband to get on my daughters’ kayak, which he did. We were all laughing and giggling my husband being his usual joker of a dad. Moments later, my husband started drifting towards the causeway, flailing around, joking that he was sinking, we were all laughing, there was nothing to worry about as the water he was heading towards was calm and trickling through the culverts. The next moment he and the kayak disappeared underwater, I still thought he was joking but he didn’t come back up.

With my daughter on my right hip, I had no choice but to leave my 4-year-old son upstream on his kayak (you don’t think in these moments, you just do). I ran through the water towards where he went under, and found him wedged face down, inside a submerged culvert between his kayak and the roof of the culvert. Let me also reiterate this was in waist deep water.

I grabbed him, and he grabbed me, and I pulled but I could not move him for the life of me. Somehow, after what seemed like eternity but was probably just 10-20 seconds, he somehow managed to raise his lips above the water for a gasp of air but went straight back under again. We didn’t let go of each other for one moment and I kept pulling, so did he. Meanwhile, my son had drifted towards us from the 30m upstream on his kayak, which became unbalanced. He either fell out or tried to get to me as he could see I was trying to rescue his dad. I managed to grab some part of his life jacket as he too got swept into the submerged culvert.


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For some reason (and I keep asking myself why), I couldn’t hold him for as long as I was holding my husband and he was swept away from me into the dark underwater culvert. This is a moment that I still cannot even find the words to describe, no mother should ever have to describe the feeling of her son being swept into a dark tunnel of water from her hands, I have to try and block this moment from my memory as it haunts me every moment. I have time to think about the event and will haunt me for years to come, as will the image of all I could see of my husband (the tip of his head) being stuck just 10cm under the water poking out the edge of a dark tunnel. I had no idea what was in the tunnel, and I had no idea if my son had come out the other side. I still had my husband in my left hand and my daughter on my right hip, standing in middle of this culvert. It had swallowed my son and my husband and for some reason it hadn’t swallowed my daughter and I.

I recall saying, “my son is gone, my son is gone” and didn’t realise until waking the following morning with an extremely sore throat that I must have been screaming it repeatedly. Like I said, you don’t think in these moments, you just do. What I did and said, even though I question every moment of it, over and over again, is what I think saved us all.

My husband, the fittest and most mentally resilient human being I know, recalls this moment from inside the culvert being facedown looking out and seeing light ahead of himself which started to turn dark, he knew this was the end for him. He had been under for 1-2 minutes my now, inhaled a lot of water and only one breath of air.

We are both so grateful that he has previous survival training with the British Royal Marines (swimming through 20-30 m underwater tunnels with clothes, boots and packs on) and he knew he was not to panic, but to remain calm to conserve his energy and oxygen until I rescued him. At this moment that it started to go dark for him, he heard me scream “my son is gone, my son is gone, my son is gone!” He knew he had no choice but to get out of there to save his little boy, and although in the preceding minutes, neither of us could move him even an inch, his father instinct combined with an overload of adrenalin, he somehow pulled himself from inside the tunnel, emerging from the water like some super hero from a movie.
I pushed him up towards the road and screamed for him to get my son. I popped my head up to see if my son had emerged from the either side and could see his beautiful brave little face while he was clinging to a rock amongst the gushing water. He slipped off that rock and swam towards the bank and found another rock to grab onto it. My husband leapt over the road, into the rocky water and got to our brave little boy and pushed him up the bank. My son was so brave he didn’t cry or scream; he was so strong and focused through the whole event.

My family was safe, my family is alive!! This whole event took no more than two minutes yet seemed like an eternity (and still does). While all this was going on, my daughter could see her red kayak floating down the river and was screaming her little lungs out, ‘my kayak, my kayak!!’ I so wanted to go and hug my boys, but as my daughter gets what my daughter wants, I left her to hug our boys while I safely retrieved her kayak.

I have never felt compelled to write any of my life events down, and for some reason I need to write this one down. I think its to finalise the event, to write exactly what happened, rather than repeating the event over and over in my head and consistently wandering about the what ifs. The what if a rock, a stick, a piece of wire was in that culvert and grabbed on to my son’s life jacket and he didn’t come out the other side? What if my son hadn’t gone under, would my husband have found the energy to pull himself out in what he describes as his last moments? What if my son didn’t slip away from me, he probably wouldn’t have been able to hold his breath like his dad could, and would he still be here? What if I had taken one tiny step in any direction or taken one foot off the ground, would my daughter and I have gone through the culvert too? Would my son have then been on his own clinging to a rock with us all stuck in that culvert? What if we hadn’t asked my husband to get on my daughters’ kayak, none of this would have happened? I’m certain these thoughts will dissipate over time. Until then, I need to focus on what did happen and that is we all survived!

My husband inhaled a lot of water and my son couldn’t confirm whether he had or not and we went to the hospital just in case of dry drowning (aka secondary drowning) for peace of mind. The boys were seen to immediately (despite the waiting room full of people) and x-rays confirmed my husband had water in his lungs and his ribs weren’t broken from when he miraculously pulled himself from inside that culvert to save my son. They were both kept in Emergency under thorough observation for five hours and have been healthy since. 

What I find fascinating is that although the four of us were all in that moment together, we have four very different perspectives of it. My husbands was from inside that culvert, looking out to his family and not being able to get to them and feeling his last moments on his earth; mine trying to hold onto all my family with every inch of energy I have; my daughters is screaming the creek down to save her kayak and my sons to hold onto rocks until daddy comes to rescue me.

The following morning I returned to the causeway. I stopped and walked over the causeway to see where and how all of this happened and to look for this culvert that was not visible to us at the time. I still couldn’t see it even though I knew it was there!! After a minute or so of searching, I found what was about a 1 m wide by approx. 70cm deep hole only 10-20cm from the water surface and under the new and exposed culverts. All the water beneath the surface is channelled through this small hole, causing so much force that of course it wouldn’t let my husband go and sucked my son wearing a life jacket through. I have since learned that this is the culvert from the original bridge, a new bridge has been built over the top of it with the series of exposed culverts expanding across the width of the creek.

I have contacted the council and requested that somebody call me back ASAP, so I can take somebody there to show them. At the very least there need to be signs warning people of the submerged culvert and ideally a grate covering it that hands and feet don’t get stuck in and only water can get through. I’m also concerned that this isn’t the only causeway with a hidden culvert. It is my priority to ensure that this causeway is made safe as possible for people to swim around, and hopefully other causeways are made safe as well.

I have since learned of another teenager being swallowed by the same culvert weeks earlier and shot out the other side. I don’t know them personally, but I urge them to contact the council to inform them, as this is obviously not an isolated incident. I can only presume this has happened to others as well. If this has happened to you either here or in any other causeway, please notify council, they need to know that these causeways are a serious hazard to our community.

Having survived this ordeal, I feel obligated to warn our community of the danger at this causeway and the potential dangers at others. Please share this story with your friends as many of us swim at causeways and just don’t know what is beneath the surface nor do we realise how potentially dangerous calm looking, crystal clear waist deep water can be. I certainly didn’t until now and I don’t want anyone to experience what my family experienced on St Paddy’s day, they may not be as lucky as we were. 


Anonymous, Miallo 

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