27 October 2023

Flood, debris and capsized raft didn't stop AFP team from saving man's life in risky river rescue

| Albert McKnight
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four men standing, three with awards

Pictured at the 2022-23 National Search and Rescue Awards are Australian Maritime Safety Authority CEO Mick Kinley, Senior Constable Ben Cox, Sergeant Reginald Dwyer and Senior Constable Ewan Locke. Photo: AMSA.

With no option to call in helicopter support, a rescue team had to brave a flooded and fast-flowing river themselves to save the life of a man clinging to a tree stump in the middle of the current.

Members from the Australian Federal Police Maritime, Air Support and Search and Rescue teams recently received commendations at the National Search and Rescue Awards for their efforts in the dramatic rescue.

Around mid-morning on 20 September 2022, the teams learned someone was trapped in the middle of the Murrumbidgee River near Kambah Pool.

Reginald Dwyer, the sergeant in charge of AFP Maritime in Canberra, said his team couldn’t see the man as trees obscured him when they arrived, so they had to use a drone team.

The man was found in the middle of the river, stranded on an upturned tree stump. The river was about 150 metres wide at the time, with its water high and flowing fast after breaking its banks.

Along with the number of trees, logs and rocks both visible on the river and underneath it, the conditions were “extremely hazardous”, the sergeant said.

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The TOLL Rescue Helicopter was asked if it could help, but the conditions were too dangerous for it to approach.

“The conditions were so bad that the rescue helicopter couldn’t winch a person down to him because they will not put a person into water that’s fast-flowing like that,” Sergeant Dwyer said.

“They were worried about the wash from their rotors sweeping him off the tree stump that he was on.

“Once all of those avenues for helicopter rescue were gone, we pretty much had no choice but to go in there ourselves.”

Three of Sergeant Dwyer’s team, including himself, decided to use a raft to reach the man.

“Because the river had swollen and had broken its banks, the trees that are normally on the shoreline of the river were actually in the middle of the river,” he said.

“So we actually had to raft a small distance, then we had to carry the raft and wade through trees, then raft again and wade a little bit further before we were able to locate the male.”

Kambah Pool

The area of the Murrumbidgee River near the Kambah Pool was the site of a dramatic rescue in 2022. Photo: PairePaire Pattheera.

But the drama didn’t stop there.

Once they loaded the man on board and were heading back to shore, the raft struck a rock and capsized.

The team had to grab the man while they were stuck in the middle of the river, wrapped around some trees. One team member was sent to shore and they were able to use the raft as a ferry to move the man to shore, then made the journey themselves over about half an hour.

During the rescue, the man was “very scared” and “very cold”, Sergeant Dwyer said. Once back on the shore, he was airlifted out by the helicopter.

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ACT Policing said the team members had placed themselves at considerable risk in rescuing the man as the river conditions were very dangerous. Sergeant Dwyer agreed.

“Realistically, from the moment we entered the water, we had put ourselves at risk,” he said.

Earlier this month, AFP Maritime, Air Support and Search and Rescue received commendations at the 2023 National Search and Rescue awards in recognition of their outstanding contribution to search and rescue.

“It’s a very humbling experience, first and foremost, but it’s a very proud moment to be recognised,” Sergeant Dwyer said.

He said he was extremely proud of his team.

“We all knew that we shouldn’t be going in, but we knew if we didn’t, no one else would be going in,” he said.

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