The east coast of Australia was hit by catastrophic floods in January, with torrential rain leading to a declaration of a state of emergency for parts of Queensland and New South Wales. Thousands were evacuated from their homes due to the flooding – which came in the wake of Tropical Cyclone Oswald – with upwards of 30 homes being damaged or destroyed in the city of Bundaberg, for example, where over 100 soldiers were deployed. Government services, including the military, worked around the clock to aid displaced citizens, provide supplies and help with clean-up operations, and helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) such as RACQ CareFlight Rescue, RACQ Capricorn Helicopter Rescue, RACQ CQ Rescue and AGL Action Rescue helicopter, along with the Australian Defence Force, have engaged in some impressive rescue operations. Stefan Mohamed has the details
The Australian Defence Force, utilising a pair of Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) C-130J Hercules planes carrying aeromedical evacuation personnel from RAAF Bases Williamtown and Richmond, engaged in the evacuation of many patients to Brisbane, while four Australian Army Black Hawks provided flood relief and emergency recovery efforts around Bundaberg and Maryborough (you can view a video of their efforts here - http://videos.viostream.com/1563_142090_42389_mp4hd.mp4).
On 25 January, RACQ CQ Rescue retrieved a 22-year-old man who became stuck on Suttor Developmental Road, Queensland, early in the morning. He had been driving from Charters Towers to Mackay when he was caught in rising flood water, and although he had been without food or water for quite some time, he was successfully rescued and safely taken to Mackay. The helicopter later stood down after searching for a vehicle swept off Fitzroy Developmental Road into May Downs Creek near Middlemount, but to the relief of all concerned, the vehicle’s occupant was later found alive and well in Nebo.
On 27 January, the AGL Action Rescue Helicopter’s Bundaberg crew (call sign Rescue 512) retrieved an elderly woman who, along with her husband, had been in a small boat that was flipped over by floodwater. The couple had held onto the upturned vessel for as long as they could, but eventually lost hold. When the AGL helicopter arrived the woman was clinging onto a log. She was unable to swim, so was winched up to the helicopter, although her husband was able to wade to the bank and chose to return to their home (you can view a short video of this operation below).
The AGL Helicopter continued to be busy throughout the following week, with Rescue 511, Rescue 512 and Rescue 513 completing several operations over 24 hours on 29 January.
Rescue 511 airlifted a 67-year-old man suffering a serious abdominal condition from Murgon Hospital to Kingaroy Hospital due to impassable roads, as well as taking a 46-year-old man requiring renal dialysis from Proston to Toowomba Base Hospital, before searching Doongul for a pregnant woman, who it is believed had been stranded in the rear cargo tray of a utility vehicle for 24 hours, and bringing her to safety. Elsewhere, Rescue 512 temporarily relocated over 50 patients requiring emergency treatment, and Rescue 513 rescued a 32-weeks pregnant woman and then a man who had been stranded in the flood zone at Duingal.
Even some of the pilots and crew had their homes flooded – AGL Action Rescue pilot Peter Potroz, for example, found his house completely cut off by rising water, but selfessly decided that it ‘was not more important than trying to save lives’. He went on to rescue an elderly couple from their house, one of whom was had just come out of hospital and was hooked up to an oxygen machine with one metre of water lapping around his bed by the time the helicopter winchman reached him. The couple’s son, Steve, said that the team were ‘bloody heroes … if they weren’t there, it would have been game over for mum and dad’.
One particularly eye-popping rescue story involved Central Queensland-based non-profit RACQ Capricorn Helicopter Rescue’s Rescue 300, which was called to aid the occupants of a car – two adult females and a 14-month-old child – that had been washed off a flooded road near the Dawson Highway, Biloela, on 26 January. The helicopter was directed by Queensland Ambulance Service ground units, who, along with other civilian personnel, were unable to reach the stranded vehicle due to the ferocity of the water. Rescue 300 approached twice so that the optimum direction and hoist point could be ascertained, taking into account wind, aircraft performance and the position of the vehicle, which had come to rest near a large tree, its progress halted by an underwater obstacle.
Crewman and ‘down the wire man’ Garth Snaidero was lowered towards the stranded civilians, a procedure made extremely hazardous by the water, which could have dislodged the car at any moment, as well as the debris and the proximity to the tree. When he reached the car, he decided that it was imperative to hoist up the child first. However, because of the child’s size, Snaidero was unable to fit him in the regular rescue sling, so he instead opted to zip him into a gym bag. The child was quickly winched up, along with Crewman Snaidero, and transferred to the helicopter, where he was cared for by a QAS intensive care paramedic. Snaidero then retrieved the two women from the car, and they were taken, along with the young boy, to safety in Biloela (full heart-stopping footage of the ‘baby in bag’ rescue can be seen below).
Rescue 300 then attempted to return to Rockhampton, but had to stop and refuel at Thangool airport. It was subsequently able to return to Rockhampton Airport.
Two days later, on 28 January, Queensland Health tasked Rescue 300 with the evacuation of three people who had been isolated in the Lowmead area since the previous Friday (25 January), one of whose houses had been inundated with water right to the roof. The trio had run out of diesel to power their generator, and their supply of food and fresh water was dangerously low, but they were hoisted up successfully and taken to Gladstone to seek shelter with friends. Then, on 30January, Rescue 300 was contacted by Canberra-based Australian Search and Rescue to inform them of a distress beacon whose signal had been picked up by multiple aircraft. The beacon’s precise location, however, had not been ascertained, with initial reports placing it somewhere between Bundaberg and Mackay. En route to Bundaberg, Rescue 300 picked up the beacon signal and the crew was able to use the helicopter’s ‘homer’ to pinpoint its location. The beacon was eventually discovered floating in the ocean, surrounded by boats that had been damaged and washed out to sea, but no injured persons were found. The helicopter retrieved and deactivated the beacon, which the crew could now see had become damaged as it had been broadcasting a signal despite being switched off. Rescue 300 then headed back towards Rockhampton, but while on the way a request was received to find a dinghy and its missing occupant, a 20-year-old male, near Bundaberg. The man had been missing since Sunday afternoon, but after searching the area without success, Rescue 300 had to return to Rockhampton because it was running low on fuel.
Finally, RACQ CareFlight Rescue (part of Gold Coast charity CareFlight Group Queensland, which also operates EMS helicopters on behalf of Queensland’s Coal Seam Natural Gas Industry) also carried out several successful rescues at the height of the flooding. A pregnant mother, her husband and her 15-month-old child were retrieved from the front step of their North Bundaberg home on 29 January, having been stranded by water but finding it impossible to get to the safety of the roof due to the young age of the child and the mother’s condition. The mother, Helen Smith, later offered her sincere gratitude to her rescuers: “They were absolutely magic and we can’t thank them enough.” Crewman Brian Guthrie commented on the rescue: “The entire emergency operation in Bundaberg was intense and I was so glad we found them … [having] kids yourself it’s all a bit too close to home.”
This widely-publicised rescue was the first of 70 missions, including winch rescues, evacuations and medical retrievals, undertaken by CareFlight Queensland’s fleet, which includes four helicopters and two Lear Jets. Over 60 people were airlifted from Bundaberg in the space of 24 hours after the rescue of Helen Smith and her family, and the CareFlight QLD helicopter based at Toowoomba airlifted a seven-year-old boy, along with his mother, from Maryvale to Toowoomba Base Hospital after the boy suffered complications from a recent kidney transport. The mother and son had been separated for nearly 48 hours due to the flooding. Despite the obvious logistical challenges and the distressing nature of the disaster – “The images of so many people stranded on rooftops waving for help has been tough for our crews,” said Ashley van de Velde, chief executive officer of CareFlight QLD – Brian Guthrie summed up the passion and determination shared by all the various crews: “We just want to be able to help people and make a difference. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else at the moment whilst there are so many families in need.”
Particularly busy was a single Bell 412 flown by the Emergency Management Queensland Helicopter Rescue Service (EMQHRS), which responded following severe flooding in Bundaberg. On a single day, the EMQHRS aircraft rescued 50 people from rooftops in the area. Astonishingly, rescue crewman Marty Dahlstrom completed both his first and his 50th rescues on 26 January. A spokesperson commented: “He now has more rescues under his belt than he does flying time.”