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Flood heroes save 13 lives in swirling floodwaters

John Lawrence, Shyam Bryan and Johnny Norris helped rescue 13 people from the flooded Greenhills Caravan Park in South Murwillumbah.
John Lawrence, Shyam Bryan and Johnny Norris helped rescue 13 people from the flooded Greenhills Caravan Park in South Murwillumbah. Nikki Todd

THREE men have been labelled heroes after they helped rescue 13 people - including two men clinging to a light pole - from swirling flood waters at a South Murwillumbah caravan park.

Piercing screams for help, loud enough to be heard above the howling rain being dumped by ex-Tropical Cyclone Debbie in the early hours of Friday, March 31, drew Johnny Norris, 33, and John Lawrence, 22, from their respective homes close to the Greenhills Caravan Park. There they ran into Shyam Bryan, 34, a resident of the park of eight months, who had just evacuated his young son to higher ground at the nearby Tweed Regional Art Gallery.

"It would have been around 2am. I heard yells for help,” said Mr Norris, a father of three who lives across the road.

"We phoned the SES but they were pretty much back-logged, they couldn't get down here.

"I wandered down and ran into these two boys in front of the house adjacent to the two gentlemen clinging onto the pole.

"The current was pretty strong, we didn't want to swim out there.”

An aerial shot of Greenhills Caravan Park (foreground) on April 1, a day after the big inundation.
An aerial shot of Greenhills Caravan Park (foreground) on April 1, a day after the big inundation. Tweed Shire Council

It was then they noticed a tinny floating at a nearby house, turned upside down by the torrential rain and flooding through the area.

"One of them had a (torch) light,” Mr Bryan said. "They were screaming out for help. We could hear them yelling and we could see the light through the houses.

"We had to get them, they were desperate. I couldn't just watch people die.”

Using their hands and a shovel as paddles before Mr Lawrence ran home to find a kayak paddle, the men manoeuvred the boat through the flood waters to the light pole. There they found Jamie Bolton, 39, and Ron Lee (aka Billy Badluck) clinging to the pole in water up to 3m deep.

Jumping into the water, the men managed to haul the two exhausted men into the boat.

"Luckily they came along ... or we'd be dead,” Mr Bolton said. "I'd been clinging to the pole for 1.5 to two hours, I don't know how much longer I could've held on for.”

GUARDIAN ANGELS: Jamie Bolton thanks Johnny Norris, John Lawrence and Shyam Bryan for saving him after he clung to the light pole, 3 metres above the ground, for more than 1.5 hours in the swirling floodwaters.
GUARDIAN ANGELS: Jamie Bolton thanks Johnny Norris, John Lawrence and Shyam Bryan for saving him after he clung to the light pole, 3 metres above the ground, for more than 1.5 hours in the swirling floodwaters. Nikki Todd

After depositing the two men on safe ground, the three heroes went back in, this time to save more residents - standing on the roof of their cabins - who had ignored earlier orders by the SES to evacuate the park. "I think it was a rude shock to a lot of residents that woke up to water coming into their cabins and their vans,” Mr Norris said.

The men went on to rescue a couple from New Zealand, and their bird, as well as a family of four, including two children. They later returned to get a young couple before returning for the park owner, his mother and his partner, making it 13 people in total.

"It's astounding what these guys did,” said Julie Maloney, a park resident who evacuated earlier that night. "They have done an amazing job and deserve to be honoured. They are playing it down but it is a really big thing.”

Julie Maloney was a resident of Greenhills Caravan Park on the night of the flood. She believes the three men should be recognised fro their heroic actions.
Julie Maloney was a resident of Greenhills Caravan Park on the night of the flood. She believes the three men should be recognised fro their heroic actions. Nikki Todd

But the men rejected being labelled heroes.

"I'm sure anyone else would've done the same thing in that situation,” Mr Norris said.

"What do you do, just let them drown? You've got to try something. We were just lucky there was a boat and three of us urging each other on.”

Born in Murwillumbah and no stranger to floods, Mr Bryan said the storm had made him uneasy all day.

"I purposely drunk six coffees just so I would stay up all night,” he said.

"The whole day I felt off, I knew something was a bit weird. I was making sure I was checking every corner of the park, everyone else just felt they would be alright and would just ride it out.

"I've lived through floods but nothing like this one - this was just crazy, it was off the charts.”

Mr Lawrence, another Murwillumbah native who has lived through many floods, said they had been lucky that night, as they contended with swirling floodwaters and live power lines.

"Looking back it is a bit of a shock,” Mr Lawrence said.

"I wouldn't think I would've been doing that that night. I reckon we are really lucky, especially the guys on the pole there, they are really lucky. This place was lit up - everything was on. The main concern was the power.”

Sadly, the men learned the following day of the death of Marc Austin, 45, a resident of the park whose body was found in his caravan.

Topics:  cyclone debbie flood heroes greenhills caravan park south murwillumbah tweed flood


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