SEVEN Parks Victoria staff have received one of Australia’s top honours for their selfless acts of bravery while rescuing people during severe flooding at Wilsons Promontory National Park in 2011.
The Australian Bravery Award Group Citation has recognised Melissa Moon, Baden Williams, Jack Schulz, Daniel Hudson, Darren Hill, Steve Burns, and Dave Bone for their actions at the Tidal River campground on the night of March 22, 2011.
The Group Citation is awarded by the Governor-General of Australia for “a collective act of bravery, by a group of persons in extraordinary circumstances”.
The independent Australian Bravery Decorations Council makes recommendations to the Governor-General regarding who should be recognised and at what level of award.
His Excellency General the Honourable David Hurley AC DSC (Retd) awarded 38 Bravery Decorations on March 16, 2022 in recognition of the courage, bravery and selflessness of 46 people, including the Citation for the Wilsons Prom group.
“In a moment of peril, the recipients were selfless and brave,” he said.
“The people receiving awards didn’t wake up in the morning and decide that they would be brave – each was faced with an unexpected situation and made a conscious choice, in the moment, to turn towards the danger and help others,” the Governor General said.
“On behalf of all Australians, I would like to congratulate and thank the individuals being recognised. Their deeds and selflessness are inspirational.”
The following details are courtesy of Parks Victoria.
GROUP CITATION NOTES
Explanatory notes accompanying the Group Bravery Citation for the Wilsons Prom rangers read:
An unprecedented rainfall event occurred at Wilsons Promontory National Park in Victoria that dumped over 370mm of rain in the space of 24 hours.
During the afternoon an Emergency Response was initiated by Parks Victoria rangers who, concerned for the welfare of park visitors, staff and contractors, began to warn persons at risk in various remote locations throughout the park to leave the area.
At around 9:00 pm, serious flash flooding occurred in the Darby and Tidal rivers that had received 130mm of rain in the preceding 12 hours. Approximately 200 people were trapped in the Tidal River township, with half a metre of water surging through the area’s campground. The power to the campground failed, plunging the area into darkness, as waters rose to almost two metres in some areas.
A number of Rangers were involved in the rescue of people from flooded tourist cabins, caravans and cars. They encountered extremely hazardous conditions including neck deep and fast flowing water and debris. People were taken to a lodge above the waterline and it became the unofficial community centre and gathering point.
The extensive flooding severely affected many buildings, damaged roads and tracks, and caused the collapse of the Darby River Bridge which cut road access to the promontory.
No casualties occurred during the incident, and visitors were evacuated from the area by helicopter over the following days.
On March 22, 2011, more than 200 people were camped at Tidal River enjoying a late summer trip to one of Parks Victoria’s most popular sites.
A wet day was forecast, but nothing could prepare people for the downpour that hit the Prom. The rain simply didn’t stop, and only seemed to get heavier throughout the day.
As the evening began to set in, water inundated the campground and it was clear the situation was becoming serious. Parks Victoria’s emergency response was activated. People in remote locations were warned about the situation and urged to leave the park if they could.
Wilsons Promontory National Park Ranger in Charge Brett Mitchell set up an incident control centre with the Victoria Police at Yanakie, just outside the park boundary.
Meanwhile the rangers who were living at the campsite tried to make sure everyone was safe as the water rose further.
THE FLOOD SURGES
At around 9 pm there was a sudden, violent surge – likely caused by a landslip downriver. More than one metre of water streamed across the campsite, sending vehicles and debris everywhere.
The rangers, led by Duty Officer Darren Hill, worked together to evacuate visitors to higher ground, but it was not easy. At times, the water was above head height and desperate campers were scattered across the area.
Dave Bone’s 4×4 and the Tidal River tanker vehicle, driven by Steve Burns, quickly became a route to safety for many.
“Driving over to the main car park, a mum and her two boys quickly jumped in with me, filling the cab with water,” Dave recalled.
“I’ve no idea how many people climbed on the back, except that it was a lot. Heading for dry ground along Second Avenue, the water level was now over the bonnet, totally obscuring the lights.”
On foot, Jack Schulz rescued another ten people, including a mum and baby, from the flooded general store.
“The front doors were smashed in and water was pouring into the building, along with a number of posts and other debris,” Jack said.
“I then realised there were people inside, one was a young mother and a week-old baby … I got the young mother and baby and helped her out as there was a lot of debris. I then escorted the others outside to the rear of the shop onto higher ground.”
Danny Hudson and Darren tried to drive one of the Parks utes across the campground to assist with the evacuation.
Despite finding it flooded with water up to the steering wheel, the ute started, but it soon lost traction and started to float and spin.
As it did so, the central locking engaged and they feared they would be trapped, but the electric windows somehow still worked, and they managed to climb out to safety.
Danny headed for the inundated cabins and eco-lodges to make sure nobody was still inside.
“I was running along, banging on doors,” he recalled.
“As I got to the last cabin I heard some voices yelling out to me. I was up to my neck in water. All I had was my phone light. There was a metre of water in the cabin, and a really elderly couple in there, standing on the kitchen bench. The husband and I got the elderly lady, on tip-toes to keep above water … I got them out to a relatively safe spot.”
Melissa Moon met Danny and together they rescued another family from the cabins.
“Danny and I waded our way along the various tracks throughout the cabin precinct calling out and listening for responses over the sound of the fast-flowing water.” Melissa recalled.
“After searching for a while it appeared that most people had managed to get out and seek higher ground, however, we did find one last family still huddled together on the top bunk of their cabin.”
After his own narrow escape from the ute, Darren rescued a group of elderly campers sheltering in a flooded van.
“The water was just below mattress level. They gathered some dry bedding and I escorted them out of the van and along Third Avenue to the George Robinson group lodge where people were gathering,” he said.
Meanwhile, a group of SES personnel had managed to reach Tidal River in a ute, but a second truck with them had got stuck in the flood waters north of the campground. Steve drove the fire tanker out to rescue them.
“When we arrived, we found the SES truck stuck between a large stand of eucalypts that had fallen from the edge of the steep road,” he said.
“Most of the trees would have been decades old with very large root structures … the ground had just given way and the trees toppled over.”
Using a chainsaw, their own strength and the fire tanker’s tow chain, Steve and the SES personnel were able to cut a way through the fallen trees and get the crew to safety.
The campsite was a surreal place that night. Cars and caravans were picked up by the force of the water and joined the debris. Dave recalled seeing a caravan floating down Third Avenue.
“Its owner was hanging on to a handle on the rear corner in a futile attempt to steer it – to where I don’t know,” he said.
“He looked like he had no intentions of letting go, so I physically had to get a hold of him by the collar and say, “it’s time to go”.
Everyone who could was taking shelter in the huts that remained above the water, fuelled by a strong community spirit.
Melissa remembered that, ”the guests who were not flooded out of their accommodation kindly opened their doors to all of our displaced visitors.
“I recall walking in the door of the George Robinson group lodge and just seeing people sleeping in hallways, on couches and basically anywhere that there was clear floor space out of the weather,” she said.
“The ladies who had booked the lodge were busy making cups of tea for the cold and weary. The scene in [the other buildings] was much the same.”
AIRLIFT AND AFTERMATH
In the morning of March 12, 2011, Steve discovered the rainfall gauge at the campsite had recorded more than 377mm – the highest recorded day’s rain in Victorian history.
Cars, caravans, tents and debris were strewn across the campground, but remarkably, thanks to the actions of the rangers, there was no loss of life.
While the flood water started to recede, Brett Mitchell and the emergency services at Yanakie realised the campsite would have to be evacuated by air, after the Darby Road bridge – the only route into Tidal River – was washed out.
The ensuing airlift was the biggest in Australia since Cyclone Tracey in 1974. More than 300 people were rescued from Tidal River and the wider Wilsons Promontory National Park on a series of helicopter flights.
Melissa recalled, “it was my job to compile flight manifests for each load of evacuees, 18 per flight from memory, being flown out of Tidal River, one copy for the pilot and another for our records
“It took two days to fly all of the evacuees out of Tidal River, with two helicopters doing continuous trips between the Norman Beach Car Park and the Yanakie Airbase.”
Darren was also involved in the airlift and recalled seeing the scale of the damage caused across the Prom from the air.
“It was only then that I really understood the enormity of it – I never expected to see the scale of the damage. There were landslips at Mt Oberon and the road was completely washed out,” he said.
And after that extraordinary effort, the clean-up began.
“The weeks and months that followed were a lengthy process of cleaning up, rebuilding and lots of challenging work,” Steve recalled.
“But despite facing the full wrath of Mother Nature the park was reopened to visitors and we all carried on with business as usual.”
ELEVEN YEARS LATER
As the group received their award earlier this month, memories of the flood and the days that followed remain strong for everyone involved.
“I’m sure I will be telling the story for years to come,” Melissa said.
For Dave, the magnitude of the flood certainly took a long time to sink in. ”So too did the fact that we’d pulled off the largest airlift in Australian peace time history without injury or loss of life.
“I now work for Alberta Parks in Canada, and while working in the Rockies in June of 2013, it happened again!”
Steve said ”I can honestly say from facing bushfires, storms, floods and other natural disasters in my career with the Victorian State Government, Parks Victoria and with the Emergency Services, I’ve seen the power of nature and the destruction it can cause.
“And yet how it brings people together to help one another in difficult times will never cease to amaze me.”