Recent remarkable weather events have made news around the world, but here in Australia particular focus has been on Queensland and New South Wales. Heavy rains, winds, huge seas and lightning hail storms around the Sydney region have caused chaos and, tragically, loss of life amid many millions of dollars’ worth of damage. This loss of life particularly hit the small town of Dungog. Neighbouring town, Stroud, is the scene of this story of confusion, disaster narrowly avoided and heroism.
Steve and Alison Denman were travelling through the region in their motorhome on their way to a family celebration and decided to stop and spend the night in Stroud. They set up camp at the town’s showground. What happened that night is best left to the Denmans to re-tell in their own words.
My wife and I were asleep in our new (three months’ old) Explorer 4X4 motorhome when we were woken at about 4.00am on April 21 by the startling sound of a vehicle’s horn. Next, there was loud banging on the side of our motorhome and a voice yelling: “get out, get out, get the **** out of here, it’s flooding!” We later found out the source of the man’s voice – Michael Maytom.
I opened the door of our motorhome and stepped out into very fast rising floodwaters. I yelled to my wife to start putting as much stuff away as possible and I ran out and disconnected the power lead and water hose and just dropped them on the ground. In the seconds it took me to do this the water was up to the bottom of the door of our Toyota HiLux and rising fast. I grabbed the vehicle keys and told my wife to stay in the back of the motorhome, engaged four-wheel drive and stamped on the accelerator. The 3.0-litre turbo-diesel roared into life and we started moving.
I knew the highway was to our right and a road ran beside the showground arena, basically in front of us. Rain was pouring down, it was very windy and my feet were in water inside the vehicle. The windscreen was fogged up and wet on the inside and I couldn’t see very far ahead but I could make out some lamp-post lights and outlines of some buildings around the grounds. I kept the arena fence to my left and ploughed on. In what seemed like only seconds I saw the taillights of a utility stalled in the flood waters slightly to the left of me and a figure of a man – this was Michael Maytom – waist deep in flood water heading for the nearby grandstand. There was nothing we could do (for him) that he wasn’t doing already; I had my doubts that we would make it out safely.
I ploughed on around the back of some low buildings and the grandstand area, amazed we were still moving forward, hopefully towards the Stroud Showground entrance/exit. By this time the flood water was up to the headlights and coming over the vehicle’s bonnet, pushing a bow wave. Fortunately, our vehicle was fitted with a snorkel (actually fitted it to prevent dust ingress) which helped our chances immensely. I could see the shadowy outline of the trees which surrounded the arena to my left and a streetlight ahead of me – I thought this was near the exit. I kept my foot on the accelerator, then, in front of me, I saw a wire fence blocking our way. As I put vehicle into reverse, the front wheels lost traction for a second, before I reversed a very short distance. Back in drive I turned the steering wheel hard to the left and accelerated forward around the fence. I then turned hard right and felt a solid surface beneath the wheels; we were heading out of the showgrounds onto the main road. I don’t know if it was luck, a guardian angel or experienced driving, but I know a minute more and we wouldn’t have made it out. It was definitely pure good fortune that we didn’t hit any submerged objects and that nothing dislodged by the raging torrent hit us. Our Explorer 4X4 motorhome was tested to its extremes and is a testament to its quality and build strength.
Once on the main road, a short drive took us up to higher ground where we called 000 for help as we knew at least four other people hadn’t made it out at that stage. We went back down to the showground on foot but it was too dark to see anything and the flood waters were still rising so we waited for help to arrive. At daybreak we could see the massive amount of water covering the showground and surrounding area, metres deep and rushing wildly.
Emergency services arrived and a rescue mission was launched. We could see Richard Wallace, who was our neighbour in the showgrounds, in the grandstand along with Michael Maytom. We couldn’t see Paul and Colleen O’Bryan, two people who had also been camped in the showground but we were assured by authorities they had been seen.
Richard Wallace later told us he tried to get into his vehicle but it was already filling with water and couldn’t be driven so he decided to head for the fence around the arena. He thought this would give him something to hang onto and he knew which direction to go to get to the grandstand. He got close to the grandstand after fighting his way through the strong current but couldn’t quite make it into the grandstand as he had a bad back and his legs were cramping. He called to Michael for help and Michael rushed to his aid and dragged him out of the water and into the grandstand. After having been there for a couple of hours, Michael told Richard that the side of the grandstand was starting to bulge and that they may have to make a jump for it onto the roof of an amenities block – a good six feet away! Richard told us he wouldn’t have made it; he couldn’t have jumped six inches let alone six feet. As it turned out, the grandstand held up okay and when the water had subsided enough Richard and Michael walked out, even though Richard only had socks on his feet. Richard had a fairly new caravan and a brand-new VW Amarok 4WD – these were washed away and smashed into a bridge near the showground. Both were completely wrecked.
Paul and Colleen were in the water for three hours before being rescued. We spoke to them later and Colleen in particular was still in shock. Her core body temperature when she was rescued was 32.6°C – very close to heart attack temperature. Paul told us they started to drive out but Richard’s caravan had been washed down and blocked their exit. Before he could turn around their vehicle started to float so they had to get out of the vehicle and try to make their way to safety on foot. Amazingly, though the current tried to carry them away, they somehow managed to reach a small brick amenities block not far from the grandstand. The flood waters had risen high enough for Paul to be able to get on the roof but Colleen couldn’t manage it so Paul tied her to the building with her cardigan. Michael saw them from the grandstand but it was impossible to reach them so he threw his belt and jacket to them so Paul could secure Colleen more firmly. Michael called encouragement to them constantly, telling them to hang on for the sake of their children and grandchildren. Eventually, with Colleen starting to lose consciousness, they were rescued by emergency workers in a dinghy and taken to safety. There is a retirement lodge across the road from the showground which wasn’t inundated and so Richard, Paul and Colleen were taken there to be treated by paramedics. Colleen was later transferred to hospital. Paul and Colleen had a new, very large American-style fifth wheeler and a 6.6-litre American tow vehicle. The fifth wheeler didn’t move as it weighed about eight tons but it sustained considerable water damage. They were able to have their vehicle towed out but it was most likely a write-off.
We later found Michael Maytom still helping out with emergency services and when we thanked him profusely and my wife gave him a hug he seemed a bit taken aback – he didn’t think he had done anything special.
We also spoke to many townspeople and let them know how Michael had risked his life for us and they said, yeah, that sounds like Michael. We spoke to a Councillor Karen Hutchinson of the Great Lakes Council who was surveying the damage caused by the floods and told her our story and how five people were saved by the heroic actions of Michael Maytom. Karen assured us that Michael would be acknowledged somehow by authorities.
My wife and I have had flashbacks to the morning of our “great escape” but both of us firmly believe that if it hadn’t been for Michael Maytom neither of us would be here to tell our story, so flashbacks are a small price to pay for our lives.
We would like to say thank you to the people of Stroud, obviously, Michael Maytom in particular. Michael saved five lives (including my wife’s and mine) from the floods which inundated Stroud Showground that morning. We know there are other stories of heroism that occurred in the floods in Stroud, Dungog, Maitland and surrounding areas – but this is ours. Michael Maytom – you are our hero.
Word and photos by Steve and Alison Denman