Five women from Mullumbimby were trapped in a van for five hours on Main Arm Road in the early hours of New Years Day as flood waters rose up to the door handles.
As the waters continued to rise, the women debated what they would do if the van got swept away or if it filled with water.
One of the group, Natasha, told Echonetdaily the traumatic event began shortly after they left a New Years Eve gig at Kohinur Hall around 1.45am, minutes before organisers issued a warning not to leave the hall.
Despite the fact that they left before the warning, Natasha now freely admits ‘we should never have left the hall’.
‘There had been some discussion about the rain – most people said it hadn’t been raining long enough [to be a problem]. Quite a few cars were heading out,’ Natasha said.
‘It took quite a while for us to even get out of the carpark because a number of vehicles that reached the first flooded causeway started backing out and turning around.’
Natasha said they crossed a few causeways down from the hall until they reached one a couple of hundred metres below Kohinur Hall where police were telling people not to cross and advising them to return to the hall.
‘We had to do a U-turn and were stuck behind a pile of cars heading back up the hill. The rain was pouring so hard you could barely see out of the windscreen so two girls got out – the water was half-way up their calves – and walked 60-70 metres back up the road to see what lay ahead.’
‘They saw a tree had jammed across the causeway above, which was now blocked and they came back and said “guys, we’re not going anywhere”.
‘The other cars had all got past it – or perhaps it had only just floated down the river and jammed there. We were the only car that got stuck between the causeways, with a tree blocking one and the other one completely flooded,’ Natasha said.
Road became a river
The women’s ordeal began in earnest as the rain continued to pound down and the road turned into a river. They quickly realised the blue flashing light from the police car behind them had stopped. The police had gone, they were completely on their own.
‘We had our red tail light, which stayed on, otherwise it was completely black,’ Natasha said.
‘That cast a glow around the water so we could see what the water was doing and how high it was getting. It started to seep into the van – there ended up being about 10 inches in the van.’
The women tried in vain to use their mobile phones to call for help but, despite them showing ‘SOS only’ none could get a line out or even a message to let people know of their predicament.
With no prospect of help on the horizon and with only a coil of rope at their disposal, the five decided to tie the van to a nearby tree.
‘Harmony, who is all of 18 – she just finished school last year – put the headlamp on, jumped into the water up to her knees and tied the rope inside the car, then inched her way across the river [road] to a tree. She tied a sailing knot, one of the strongest knots, and then inched her way back along the rope, and retied it around the headrest [of one of the seats].
‘That gave us a little bit of a sense of security, that if the car started to get swept away, it might buy us five minutes of time.’
Natasha said a discussion then ensued about what might happen and what the women would do.
‘If we got swept away, would we stay in the car or abandon the car?’
Natasha said that the group returned to the site of their ordeal last week and discovered that course of action they considered would have been a fatal mistake.
‘To the right of the car was a beautiful embankment. Had we got there, with nothing hitting us with so much debris being swept down the road, we would have been safe.
‘Had we gone to the left, which is the way we tied the rope, there was a three-by-four-metre hole in the ground. It was like a rock pool. Who knows what would’ve been going on in that pool but we would not have made it out. So we had made the right decision to stay in the car.’
‘We had to decide whether to leave the windows down or up. We decided to leave them down because they are electric.
‘We decided that if we started moving we would try to steer so as to crash into the embankment but we were told later on by the rescue people that had we been swept away we most likely would not have survived. We would have just been flushed down the river – it was massive!’
Water kept rising
Natasha said that as the water kept on rising the group began to realise that they were in serious trouble. But she said it was the two young women who came up with positive suggestions and helped keep their spirits up.
‘We had one person with a serious medical condition – epilepsy – but we just kept each other positive.
‘Once we decided to stay put there was nothing more for us to do but wait.
‘But the water kept on rising: it was making waves; it was reaching the bonnet; it was over the door handles; it was starting to reach the windows of the car.’
As if that wasn’t enough, around three o’clock, with lightning flashing all around them and the water still rising, the van was hit by a massive jolt.
‘Di, the driver, noticed a huge tree branch that was being swept down the road crashed into the van.’
The women thought the impact of the massive branch would dislodge the van and start it moving. But despite their fears, nothing happened, except that the water continued rising.
‘Then, probably about half past four, we started seeing torchlight around the camping ground (at Kohinur) and we thought we were going to be rescued. We thought help was coming but it didn’t.’
Then, ever so gradually, the rain began to abate.
‘It was like a symphony, the sound and the noise levels were at such a high pitch and then we suddenly all got a sense that it sounded like it was turning down. The next minute it was straight back up. But gradually, over 20 minutes, it all but stopped.
‘We then waited, we watched, the water started dropping. Around five we had a strong sense it was coming down, the rain was over and we all just dozed off.
‘Around six o’clock the water had drained down to about knee height and people got out of the car and went up to the next causeway.
‘The rescue people came about an hour later and they took about an hour to chainsaw the tree from under the car.
‘This branch had come down the river and blocked the causeway. Then a BMW had floated down the road and crashed into the branch that was across the causeway.’
The impact dislodged the tree and totalled the BMW.
‘That branch then floated down the road and, when it reached our car, the base of it wedged against the embankment while the top part of it extremely neatly wrapped all its side branches around our wheels, essentially locking us in.
‘It did not even make one dent to the van, which is only about a foot above the road. It was just the right length, it hooked against the embankment, wedged us in and kept us safe.
Natasha said the women feel lucky on four counts: they were in a heavy, solid van; they were stopped on concrete which, unlike the bitumen road on either side of it, was not going to wash away; the branch wedged them in; and the rain stopped just in the nick of time.
‘All four of those things together and we were dry and safe – we survived!’