Swift water rescuer recounts amazing tale of saving couple

Firefighter Matt Foster and his wife Julie-Anne and son Samual.
Firefighter Matt Foster and his wife Julie-Anne and son Samual. John McCutcheon

HOLD your breath. Get back in the boat. Save them. Get home safely to your wife and kids.

These are the words repeating in Matthew Foster's mind as he is thrown around like a rag doll in the 70kmh torrents of the flooded Widgee Creek outside Gympie.

The Maroochydore swift water rescuer and his team mate Denis Donadel have just been flung from their inflatable rubber boat, the Ark Angel.

Horizontal rain is blinding them, rapids swirl around them and debris keeps slamming into their torsos.

In a flash of adrenalin Matthew, 43, and Denis, 50, manage to make their way back into the boat for a few fleeting moments.

Just metres away, a husband and wife cling for their lives to trees in the middle of the heaving creek.

An hour earlier the couple were attempting to drive through a flooded crossing. They fled their van when it stalled, partly submerged.

It would later emerge during an incredible five hour rescue mission the couple's son, a 27-year-old with cerebral palsy and physical disabilities, was ripped away from his parents' grip.

How it unfolded...

Emergency services received a triple 000 call in the early hours of Sunday, January 27.

Matthew and Denis were the second swift water rescue crew on scene, about 5am.

Another Maroochydore team, on temporary deployment from Brisbane, arrived about two hours later with four level-two swift water technicians. Their Gympie colleagues, level two technicians Grant Feeney and Tony Wildman, had arrived in darkness about 4.30am.

The only thing they heard above the rapids was a woman yelling, "Help me, help us."

Several rescue attempts were made in the treacherous conditions.

Water rising fast

As day breaks rescuers focus their attention to the woman clinging to a tree 40m from the broken creek bed.

Water is rushing over her shoulders and she is in serious danger of being swept downstream.

"It was pouring rain and the water had already risen 1.5m throughout the incident," Matthew said. "The conditions were so dangerous; I have never seen anything so ferocious.

"In the first attempt we got within two metres of her when a log came and hit the boat.

"We were tossed out, trapped under.

"It was the closest I have been to seeing what's on the flip side but my concern in that moment was my crewman Denis and getting back to safety."

Rescuing the husband

As conditions worsen, the boat flips again and the decision is made to let it go. The rescuers are now 10 metres below the husband.

Gripping hold of the trees, they edge close enough to fit him with a life jacket.

The husband yells "save my wife, I already lost my son, save my wife."

Matthew estimates the water to be flowing at an approximate depth of 4.2m where the men remain trapped.

Lines were thrown midstream to Denis and Matthew by rescuers Grant and Tony which was an integral part of the life saving mission.

This allowed the husband to be taken to safety. Those lines were used to gain access to the wife.

Saving the wife

The team's strategic effort turns to the man's wife, who has been clinging to the same tree for three hours.

She is struggling to hold her breath as the rapids churn around her from every angle.

"Water was going over her head," Matthew said.

"I don't know how she had the strength to do it. She kept hold of the tree under instruction from Denis - it was inspirational.

"At one point a massive tree fell 10m in front of her, creating a barrier between her and the torrent.

"It pretty much saved her life because it gave her some strength to keep holding on and gave the rescuers more time.

Getting them through

Matthew said the efforts of Denis and Grant to get the woman in the Ark Angel were an incredible feat in the dangerous circumstances.

"All rescuers at the incident should very proud of their efforts and action," he said

"Without the skills, courage and knowledge of all on scene, who put themselves in personal danger, it could have a different outcome."

Matthew said if it wasn't for the support of family, especially his wife Julie-Anne and his kids, Kristy, Dylan and Sam, the job would be a lot harder to deal with.

"They are the ones that are the most important and you want to come home every night to be with them," he said.

The fire-fighters reached the woman five hours after the rescue mission began.

"We were all battered and bruised and exhausted, but we felt rewarded to have been able to save these two people," he said. "Working with the fire-fighters was inspirational and the most rewarding job I have ever been involved in.

"We saved two lives that day."

If it is flooded forget it

Matthew said the incident highlighted that all fire-fighters put themselves in dangerous situations.

"We take calculated risks to save others," he said.

"It gives you pride to be part of a great organisation with the skills, courage, dedication and mateship of fire-fighters right across Queensland to perform rescues throughout the state in dire times."

The body of the couple's son was found by a resident the following day. It was 300m from the crossing.

Additional reporting Kate Clifford

Topics:  editors picks flood flooding floods floodwaters gympie rescue

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