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Pasha Bulker ten years on: the heroes

Pasha Bulker ten years on: the heroes Westpac Rescue helicopter crewman Glen Ramplin down sick after rescuing crewmen from the Pasha Bulker. Picture: Darren Pateman
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TEN YEARS ON: Glen Ramplin and his daughter Monique. Picture: Simone De Peak

RISING TIDE: Ben Donaldson stops his jet ski in suburban Merewether on June 8, 2007, to check on a motorist in floodwater. Picture: Simone De Peak.
TweetFacebookOne by one, Mr Ramplin wrangled, harnessed and lifted the ship’s fuel-soaked crewmen into the chopper. Some cried, prayed, and hugged their rescuers. Few spoke much English, but one later quipped to reporters that the captain was “f—ed”.

Eighteen times the static jolts ran through the deck and through Mr Ramplin, most violently on his final rescue of the captain.

Subsequent findings about the ship’s grounding didn’t read well for the ship’s South Korean master, who was exhausted from a lack of sleep, hadn’t ensured enough ballast on his ship, and was found to have taken an ill-timed breakfast.

“I didn’t see the captain until he was the last one we got off. I guess you could tell what had unfolded was weighing heavily on him,” Mr Ramplin said.

“We didn’t exactly have a conversation about it. I just told him, ‘time to go’.”

After two-and-a-half hours, the last man airlifted to the makeshift emergency centre of the Nobbys surf club was the captain. Chief crewman Graham Nickisson – winchman throughout the rescue – said later he “really felt for him”.

“It was a pretty emotional business.”

Of all Glen Ramplin put himself through that day, his dry-retching in the Nobbys grass was private and brief. But it’s dry-retching he remembers.

“I get seasick real easy, and all the static shock had taken its toll on me.”

By June 8, 2007, Ben Donaldson was better-known as a gravel-voiced Merewether builder with a passing resemblance to Buzz Lightyear than as a Newcastle Knight who’d played nine games at dummy-half.

That morning Mr Donaldson, 28, was one of three jet ski operators who rode out with Newcastle’s head lifeguard Warren Smith asked to support the helicopter rescue mission on the Pasha Bulker.

The other two were Josh Ferris and Mr Smith’s son Rhys. They pushed their skis off from Carrington boat ramp and roared out through the billowing grey mouth of the harbour.

“My son said, ‘you’re not going out there alone, dad’, so he and a couple of his mates came out with me,” Warren Smith recalled later.

They were to assess the damage to the ship’s vast red hull – “a bit of cracking, but not too dramatic” – and retrieve anyone who fell from the chopper or the deck. Their only shield from the wind and the 18-metre white tongues of water, Mr Donaldson said, was the mass of the Pasha Bulker.

“The tugboats were just getting engulfed. Because the waves were rollers it was nonstop, and for a while going out there we couldn’t see the Pasha Bulker,” Mr Donaldson said.

“When a gust of wind came through, that chopper was blown 20 metres like a pendulum.”

All day the radar image of the storm glowered over the Hunter “like a purple scroll”.

Night fell and Mr Donaldson went home to Frederick Street, as his neighbours’ yards sloshed under 160mm of rain and their cars bobbed and scraped against the kerb.

His place seemed clear of the floodwaters, so he slipped on a wetsuit pushed out into the canal of Frederick Street on his “Mal” surfboard, just so he could say he’d paddled down his street.

“Then people were asking me to get them out of their houses,” Mr Donaldson said.

“I did six or eight people on me Mal. An elderly lady asked me to get her out with her cats.”

He paddled from house to house, ferrying the elderly, shivering occupants to the higher ground of Helen Street.

The water was rising and cold by now, about 10 degrees, and he swapped his Mal for his jet ski; it meant he could putt back through the streets and collect the lady’s wary cats in their cages.

There came a scream.

Christina and Victor Wang were doctors from Western Australia who’d moved to Merewether with their little boys Ethan and Jeremiah, who was seven months old.

Christina was at home with Jeremiah that night. There was a moment at her kitchen sink when the water wouldn’t recede down the plughole. Outside the window, water brimmed over the back fence.

Victor Wang was stuck at work at John Hunter Hospital and growing quietly desperate to get home.

He’d picked up Ethan from childcare, but couldn’t get through to his wife.

“Trees were down everywhere. The mobile network was down. I had to go back to the hospital just to ring her. I was new to Newcastle and I kept getting lost on the roads,” Dr Wang said.

“So I rang my friend who was a few streets away.”

The Wangs’ family friend Jim Lai arrived in his four-wheel-drive to collect Christina and Jeremiah but the car, as so many that night, drove into water that was deceptively deep. The engine died and they began to float. Water gushed in and pushed inwards on the doors.

“By the time we realised we could be flooded in it was already happening,” Christina said.

“The car started filling up and we had to get out; the water was up to our shoulders and we needed help fast because the baby was frozen and couldn’t handle much more.”

When Mr Donaldson found them and wrenched open the doors, Christina was shoulder-deep and holding Jeremiah above her head. The baby was purple. He didn’t cry until they splashed into Mr Donaldson’s indoor heated pool, and then they waited on his couch in footy tracksuits until Victor and Ethan arrived.

The family has since moved back to Perth, and Jeremiah is ten years old.

Before the storm, Mr Donaldson had had terse dealings with Newcastle City Council about the requirement to build his house to withstand a once-in-a-century flood.

“But in hindsight, you probably have to give them that one.”

On the day of the storm Naomi Roskell-West was 29 and increasingly aware of the rain that was blasting through Hamilton.

Her boss had left early to pick up her kids and Ms Roskell-West, of Valentine, decided to close up and collect her own three-year-old son, Zac, from his grandparents.

“I was a single mum. This was the Friday of my first week in a new job working in the office of a distribution company,” she said.

“I had to take a detour towards the stadium and I couldn’t believe how flooded it was. In the traffic near the service station on St James Road I thought, this is a bit scary. I decided I was going to pull up in front of a bowser and stay there listening to updates on ABC radio.”

Then she saw the cars being washed down the road and the quivering people between them.

It’s a struggle to explain, and Ms Roskell-West puts it down to being “analytical”, but she still feels anger towards some of them.

Ms Roskell-West, an office worker who’d “never been in the SES, Scouts, or anything like that”, climbed the bull bar of a four-wheel-drive to reach a man clinging to a car’s side mirror.

“I reached out to grab him before he could move away any further,” she said.

“I can’t imagine what this guy must’ve been thinking, with this chick coming up at him on the front of a four-wheel-drive.”

On higher ground, the service station attendant decided it was time to close – but a woman and three children were still huddled on the roof of a car.

“All I could see was this water pounding on the front of their car. I screamed bloody murder, told [the attendant] ‘you are going to get these people killed’.”

The servo doors slid open. Ms Roskell-West found a ball of fine rope on a shelf and tied a length around her waist. Shaky and numb, she told herself to tie a proper knot. She tied the other end to a light pole and fought the chest-deep surge.

Unseen objects brushed her legs. The only permissible thoughts were “keep going” and “don’t slip”. She hasn’t seen the woman or children since she held their hands in that cold water, but she’d like to.

Not, she adds, because of nostalgia.

“I don’t see it as a positive outcome. I mean, it is, because those people are OK, but I think it’s quite sad,” Ms Roskell-West said.

“It’s a massive reminder that Mother Nature holds all the cards.”

Instead, she says it’s complicated. The days after the storm were “very much a reality check”.

Ms Roskell-West and Zac were evacuated to a hall around the corner from their house in Valentine and given blankets and soup. She still wraps herself in one of those blankets.

Later that night the police were ferrying people to Wests. She called her whole family and told them she was OK.

In the weeks that followed, the Hunter gradually realised that a series of brave interventions had stopped the death toll from climbing into the dozens.

Cardiff was a microcosm of the heroics; as staff from the suburb’s vet surgery carried a German shepherd with a broken back through the storm, five locals put down their beers to help rescue 80-year-old Pauline Eichman from her flooded home.

The five mates tethered themselves to the Lemon Grove Hotel and helped paramedics Al Qvist and Scott Hardes carry their elderly patient to an ambulance.

“The bystanders made a huge difference,” Mr Hardes said, echoing a tale told across the Hunter.

Thursday’s 10th anniversary of the storm, for Glen Ramplin, will be overshadowed by the realisation his daughter is nearly a decade old. He doesn’t think about the Pasha Bulker much, but says helicopter crewmen think about things like the significance of a shift swap.

The June long weekend is saturated in history for Ben Donaldson, who celebrates his wedding anniversary and the birthday of daughter Saoirse.

For years, Naomi Roskell-West couldn’t drive past the BP on St James Road.

“At one point I was painfully affected by it all,” she said.

“Then one day, without even realising it, I’d done it. Now it’s just a heaviness in the pit of my stomach.”

And she still gets nervous about the forecast of an East Coast Low.