What do we know about the Yamba Drive flooding deaths

johnboy 22 January 2009 106

On the discussion about Deakin flooding commenters have raised an incident in 1971 when apparently flooding on Yamba Drive killed seven (?) people.

Seven is a lot of people, it’s nearly twice as many as the 2003 fires.

I’m curious if local historians know more about this, and why there isn’t a prominent memorial?

UPDATED: If you’re so inclined there’s now a Facebook Group to join calling for the erection of a memorial.

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106 Responses to What do we know about the Yamba Drive flooding deaths
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Helen Burke Helen Burke 8:20 am 24 Jan 21

I have just found this page and reading it makes me very sad. I lost my best friend that day, Margaret Smith, and her older sister, Carmel a younger brother, Michael.

I am now 64, married with three grown up children and live in Melbourne. I went to the cemetry last year and paid my respects. A very sad day indeed.

Thank you everyone for your lovely comments and concern to maintain a memorial.

If anyone out there wants to contact me, my email is helenannburke8@hotmail.com
I was Helen Webster of Narrabundah.

Snarky Snarky 8:09 pm 25 Jan 10

Resurrecting an old thread to say that there is now a brand new memorial to the flooding deaths just off the western edge of the cyclepath near Curtin. A link to a google map should (hopefully) be here. It’s more or less in the middle of the map.

The memorial itself is a huge slim slab of stone, like an obelisk, with the names of the seven victims engraved. There’s also a small information board with a short description of the event. And a bench. It’s a very quiet, reflective little area despite the close proximity of Yarra Glen. Worth a visit if you’re out that way.

Moggie8 Moggie8 7:31 pm 06 Dec 09

I am the sister of one of the flood victims, there was a meeting between Jon Stanhope’s representatives and my family friday 4th Dec. We had been led to believe an information plaque would be included with the memorial and had worked hard to sort out wording and include historical facts only to be told at the meeting there would be no information signage due to cost. We offered to pay for it and were then told it was a matter of liability! None of us has any interest in compensation we just want the truth acknowleged. I am appalled by the late notice and feel it is a deliberate attempt to shut us down. I have only just discovered this site, didnt realise there was other interest and would love to get community support to ensure the right thing is done.

Danman Danman 3:18 pm 06 Dec 09

So, uhh, its almost been a year and no action.

Someone in RA readership directed an older gentleman from teh South Coast in my direction in January.
Since then, I have lost his details, but he had suggested he had everything under control and would ask me if he required assistance.

I was wondering if anyone out there in the big bad RA readership knows the gentleman to whom I refer, and if so, can he please contact me on chefboy@tpgi.com.au

Almost a year and no action – I am considering a guerrilla style install.

Roma Roma 9:58 am 19 Mar 09

Danman said :

Just done a quick archival search and found these 2 reports – Sorry for length of post.

Ill do an extended search later to see if I can source the original 1971 articles.

The Day Killer Floods Hit Woden
19 November 2000
Canberra Times

Seven people drowned as creek ran wild

Thirty years ago, seven people died in the worst drowning tragedy in Canberra’s history. Four children were among the victims. The drownings did not take place in a river, lake or dam.

This drama played itself out in the Woden Valley, centred on the roundabout where Yamba and Melrose drives and Yarra Glen intersect. It was early evening on Australia Day, 1971, when a threatening storm finally broke. The Yarralumla Creek and storm drains were incapable of carrying the mass of water away and soon a boiling, brackish lake of swirling, angry black water began to lap the roads.

A series of tragedies and heroic acts took place that night in some of the most desperate and treacherous conditions imaginable. Before the night was over, 62 cars had been washed away and Canberra was in mourning. Six months later, a 23-year-old police officer was awarded the British Empire Medal for Gallantry.

He is the only Australian police officer to win the award. Four others received the Queen’s Commendation for Brave Conduct. Since that night, the young constable has remained silent about his personal ordeal.

He has kept bottled up inside his sense of failure for not being able to help the seven victims. His name is Jeff Brown, and this is his story. Now a sergeant, and currently acting superintendent in ACT Police Communications, Sgt Brown said his life had been a preparation for such a night.

He had grown up in Wagga Wagga where he was a member of the local life saving club on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River. He had always loved the river, often floating down it for miles just for the joy of it. ‘I was fit, I was ready for it,’ he said.

He joined the ACT Police in February, 1969, and he was on duty on Australia Day, 1971. It had been raining for a week and Canberra was saturated. ‘It was early evening and you could see the storm coming in’.

He was a passenger in the police accident van, going along Belconnen Way when the rain began falling. The driver was Constable Mick Lucas. There was a cloud burst and a radio call came in that a roundabout was flooded at Woden.

The rain was so heavy the roads were almost impassable. The conditions lowered the van’s top speed to 15km/h. They took what seemed like an eternity to get there.

They drove through Curtin to see a kilometre-wide lake where Yarra Glen used to be, stretching off into the darkness. ‘I just couldn’t believe it, in Canberra,’ Sgt Brown said. Power had failed already.

So he set up the generator and a spotlight as the last of the daylight vanished. The two young policemen threw off their shoes and shirts. He stepped over a power line and it sizzled and sparked.

What the spotlight showed gave him a jolt. The water was surging along and people were in the water, some clinging to light poles, safety rails and street signs. ‘It was the darkest night I had ever seen.

All you saw were beams of light. It was a fast-moving lake.’ They grabbed a rope from the van and rushed into the water, past about 40 people standing at the edge.

They persuaded them to form a human chain in the shallows and began dragging people from the surging water. Lucas took control near the edge and Brown floated out, holding on to the rope. ‘I went right out, the water was over my head.’

He was swimming against the current. ‘You just got whoever you could get and you would pass them on.’ Others were in the water, which kept rising and was eddying and boiling around him.

He could not hear anything above the roar of the water, wind and rain. One man was plucked from a lamp post. They got people any way they could.

There was no plan or order. Soon, the current was too strong to hold him. He was torn off the rope and swung out into the current.

Brown tried swimming back to shore. But by now he had been in cold water for 20 minutes and he began to feel exhausted. He tried harder.

Soon, he realised he was helpless. ‘I knew now it was life or death.’ Then he heard a girl call out for help and he knew she had to be close.

He had stopped swimming to see where she was. To his horror he saw a man nearby go under the water. A car floated by with its headlights on.

Brown had no idea if there was anyone inside. He looked back to the shore, now 100 metres away. He shouted out and tried to find the girl who had called for help.

Now he was alone in the blackness and struggling for his own life. He was dragged under and held his breath as long as he could. He grabbed a breath of air but was still underwater.

His lungs filled with icy water. Suddenly he bobbed to the surface, coughing and spluttering. ‘I honestly believed it was a point in time that I was going to die.

I could see nothing. I had no energy and I didn’t know where I was. The thought flashed through my mind about my family.

I wondered where they would find my body and how far I would be washed down. ‘Then it was as though a voice told me to keep swimming. My life went before my eyes.

I couldn’t just throw the towel in. It was the will to live.’ Brown saw a flicker of light through the gloom and he made a last final desperate effort.

‘I swam towards it with everything I had left. I had to make it, because that was survival.’ The light was a flashlight held by an ambulance officer standing in the shallows.

With the help of a youth, the officer dragged Brown from the water. He only found out how who rescued him two years later. He was taken to an ambulance, where he heard on the radio that people were still trapped.

So he got out and ran back to the place he started from. He helped to drag another person from the muddy torrent, then tried to drive a police car but crashed it. He has no recollections of these final moments.

Covered in bruises and cuts and with his big toe almost severed, Brown was taken to the city police station in a police car. Sergeant Colin Winchester, later Assistant Commissioner, took him to the hospital and then to his home. For many years later, he dreamed of being in the flood, throwing the blankets off and hearing people calling for help.

When he recovered, he sold his sailboat and scuba gear. He stopped swimming. Like many of the relatives of those lost that night, Brown still longs for some kind of closure to he experiences.

‘It may help the families of those who drowned to know that we did at least try. ‘I know it is now 30 years since that incident, but never a day goes by that I don’t think about the 12 people we did pull from the flood. ‘And I wonder why it couldn’t be 19.’

Apologies for dragging out an old post but I just wanted to say thanks for this. Jeff Brown is my fiance’s uncle and we will be popping over to his house for dinner on Saturday. I had absolutely no idea about this story and will be interested in discussing it with him on the weekend.


Danman Danman 8:48 pm 03 Feb 09

I have a bittersweet update to teh current situation regarding a memorial for the 1971 floods.

For the non facebookers/email groupers, I have transcribed it below.

I would like to thank RiotACT and all the people who made their support known for this cause, most of all though I thank RiotACT its self and JB, with whom this story would not have got so much momentum.

SO its with mixed emotions I post the following


Dear All,

I just made a phonecall in response to the email I received the other day from Lisa C regarding her father Neville G and his efforts thus far regarding a memorial for the 1971 floods and a subsequent memorial.

On the back of the Canberra Times story dated 4 October 2008 regarding Mr Mcinnes call for a more suitable memorial to be installed. Neville started lobbying the government in particular Mr Stanhope heavily. He told me that despite him turning 70 soon, his letters were very peppery :). He CC’d these letters to the Canberra Times and Zed Seselja and recently got a breakthrough.

Neville discussed us and our group with Mr Mcinnes from the Canberra Times story, and they agreed that, even though they have support from Mr Stanhope, they believe that if we were to approach him, it may confuse and possibly jeopardize the process.

Neville went on to read me a few passages that he has lobbied Mr Stanhope with, and explained that the monument they were looking at was an obelisk. The reason being there was 4 families who lost members on that day. The Obelisk would be located so that the setting sun would cast a shadow over the general area that the victims were located.

Neville was very touched that a group of people who had nothing to do with the events that day were offering help.

I then explained, that on his advice, we would cease and desist any efforts in regards to the memorial. He speculated that there may be public submissions for designs of a monument. I then advised him that if there was any way that we could help, to please contact us. I went on to explain that no request would be too menial, and that I (and members of the group) were still happy to provide monetary assistance.

He thanked us all very much, and assured us that he was genuinely touched. He said that he was hoping that the government would pay for the monument, given the amount of money it spends on public art fixtures, and he also requests a formal acknowledgment from the current government of the tragedies of that day, the human hero factor and to accept responsibility.

I ended the phone call with passing on my contact details and assured Neville if he needed help with anything, that if no one else, I would be available.

So that friends is where it stands.
I cant help but feel a bit sad,and would like to thank you all for your support. Perhaps some time in the future Neville will call upon us for help, in which case, I hope you all show your dedication to him as you have to this group.

Warm regards

Daniel B

Granny Granny 5:04 pm 28 Jan 09

Yes, it was awesome to get that publicity from the Chronicle! Thank you everybody – you know who you are!!

: )

Thumper Thumper 4:17 pm 28 Jan 09

yep, I may see it in a month or so.

I’ll message you via facebook Danman…

Danman Danman 3:48 pm 28 Jan 09

Err Yesterdays in fact – I thought today was Tuesday due to long weekend.

Skidbladnir Skidbladnir 3:27 pm 28 Jan 09

Today’s Chronicle?

I should get mine in about two weeks, then…
(I just found out about the Nolan Gallery a few days ago)

Danman Danman 2:59 pm 28 Jan 09

There is an article in todays Southside Chronicle regarding our proposed memorial, with details on how to contact me if you wish to contribute to our efforts, more non monetarily at this stage. (Page 8, top right hand corner).

If you are interested in being involved, or even just wanting to sign a petition(Hopefully it will not come to that) or show your support to our cause, you are urged to join the facebook group as it will be the communication hub for this project.

Thank you kindly to JB, who was instrumental in casting a wide net on our behalf via the chronicle.

ricketyclik ricketyclik 11:28 am 26 Jan 09

I’ve done a bit of drainage engineering, and at Uni the Canberra system and the Yarralumla Ck storm were both on the syllabus.

The Canberra system, from memory, works on the basis that in urban areas the 1 in 10 year storm will be handled by the gutters, grates, drains and underground pipes, up to 1 in 20 should be contained by roads, and the 1 in 100 will stay below property boundaries (along the stormwater channel easements, aka parks in Canberra).

The freakish thing about the Yarralumla Creek storm was that although its severity wasn’t that great, it travelled along the path of the flood wave at just the right speed to be continually adding to the peak flow crest, resulting in a peak flow rate more akin to a much more severe storm.

Cutting edge flood design tries to take that sort of possibility in to account, with computer simulated areally-dynamic storm modelling.

Granny Granny 10:09 pm 25 Jan 09

I’m kind of committed up to the eyeballs tomorrow, BerraBoy68, or I would be there in a flash!

What time is it?

I do hope some of the others can make it along with you …. I think it’s fantastic that you’re going! Thank you so much.

BerraBoy68 BerraBoy68 9:04 pm 25 Jan 09

All, I am informed by another Rioter that a few of the police involved in the ’71 Floods are intending to gather tomorrow morning (Aust. Day) at the site fore a remembrance. The CT have been invited along too. I don’t have specific times etc. for this gathering but if you have a few hours to spare and are so inclined – go for it.

If you can make it, I’d let the older police guys know your there to support them and the call for a memorial. I’m not sure if they want it as a private function or not, but think they’d appreciate the support and the fact that others remember or still care. Hopefully, I’ll see you there.

Granny Granny 12:10 pm 24 Jan 09

That’s great, BerraBoy68! Good on you!

BerraBoy68 BerraBoy68 10:50 am 24 Jan 09

Danman said :

Yeah I am not sure how long they have been there but I saw them a few weeks ago and was like wow – huge accident and I never even heard about it.

I think someone above ^^^ or in one of the links mentions the memorial – but I am not sure how long they have been there.

Danman – I’ve just joined the FB group. Please let me know if/how I can help. I’ve read various articles about this incident for years as they have appeared in the CT and believe a proper memorial is long overdue. Since I first read about this some years ago I often think specifically of the young guy that died in the flood as I drive around the roundabout. From memory he was a bit mentally underdeveloped but had just got his drivers license and was caught in the flood and drowned. I’m not sure why but I’d like to see photo’s of the victims before they died – if any exist or are on record. It’d help to relate to them more than just names.

Danman Danman 6:47 am 24 Jan 09

Yeah I am not sure how long they have been there but I saw them a few weeks ago and was like wow – huge accident and I never even heard about it.

I think someone above ^^^ or in one of the links mentions the memorial – but I am not sure how long they have been there.

el el 10:49 pm 23 Jan 09

Seriously? I drive past there daily. You’re probably right though – I took a more detailed look at the whole area after reading this thread yesterday.

Granny Granny 10:20 pm 23 Jan 09

And it’s probably not really enough of a memorial if nobody remembers what they’re for.

Danman Danman 10:16 pm 23 Jan 09

el – They have been there for ages, I saw them a few weeks ago – but it only clicked the other day why they are there.

I guess its a case of not knowing and then observing after knowing?

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