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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ant ant 9:33 am 22 Jan 09

I vaguely remember it, big fuzzy pictures on the front of the CT and lots of shock and horror. It is odd that there’s nothing commemorating it, I expect the gov’t (we were ruled by a Territories Minister and a department then) was not keen to have peopel thinking about it.

When I pass that big roundabout, I remember what happened though.

poptop poptop 9:35 am 22 Jan 09

The Crimes covered this issue back in October ’08 with a retired Policeman, Blen McInnes, suggesting that Dinornis Maximus was a bit insensitive, should be moved and replaced with a suitable memorial to the people who died.

It seems the issue of a memorial was a surprise to both both political leaders.

Danman Danman 9:54 am 22 Jan 09

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.

Tumultuous events over 25 years
The Canberra Times
02 November 2005

January is usually a dry month in Canberra however, during the formative years of the nation’s capital a highly unusual event occurred in the Woden Valley which tested the resources and courage of police officers at the old Woden Police Station. Detective Superintendent (retired) Ian ‘Herb’ Prior was a young constable when a freakish storm hit Canberra on Australia Day, 1971. ”I looked out the car window to see an enormous bank of dark clouds forming to the south- east,” he said. Back in 1971, the now-thriving Phillip business district was still undeveloped. That open ground channelled the waters rushing down from Farrer Ridge and Mount Taylor on either side, focussing it into a dirty torrent rushing down the valley. It was the ”once in 100 years” flood, and the locals had never seen anything like it. ”A lightning bolt took out the police radio tower, leaving commercial radio as the only means of communicating both for police and the public,” Mr Prior said.

While the local radio stations issued warnings of the coming floods, a combination of disbelief and indecision slowed the public response to the emerging crisis. As a member of the ACT Police Search and Rescue Squad, Herb Prior knew his services would be needed. When he arrived at the intersection of Yamba and Melrose Drives, at the former low-level crossing for Yarralumla Creek, he could scarcely believe what he was seeing. ”I saw people clinging to trees after their cars had been swept off the crossing and into the creek,” he said. Police, ambulance and fire brigade members had to form human chains to rescue the people in shallow water, where the current was less fierce. A tow truck arrived with chains and ropes on board, and these

were commandeered by emergency crews. Constable Jeff Brown, from the Woden Station, tied a rope around his waist and struggled out deep into the torrent.He repeatedly pulled people to safety, and was later to receive a British Empire Medal for gallantry for his efforts that day. ”A call came over the truckie’s CB radio that a bloke was caught in a car near the creek bridge at MCulloch Street, in Curtin,” Mr Prior said. ”It was dark when we arrived but by torch light we saw the car in the centre of the flood, jammed sideways against a large willow tree. ”We ran about 80 metres upstream and floated down to the car, our efforts complicated by the lengths of rope we carried. ”On reaching the car, we found a petrified driver clinging to the steering wheel.” The situation became more drastic as a whirlpool had begun to develop around the car. The

man tied the rope around his chest, wound down his window, and pushed himself out into the torrent, trusting in the firemen and bystanders to pull him to safety. Seconds later, the car went under water. Tragically, seven people lost their lives that fateful day, trapped in their cars as the floodwaters raged. Five police officers from Woden Station, including Constable Brown, received bravery awards as a result of their actions that day.

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.’

Danman Danman 9:56 am 22 Jan 09

That first article appears as it does in the archive – sorry for that.

caf caf 10:04 am 22 Jan 09

a combination of disbelief and indecision slowed the public response to the emerging crisis.

The more things change, eh?

seekay seekay 10:09 am 22 Jan 09

No memorial as the government didn’t have a reason to be ashamed?

Thumper Thumper 10:09 am 22 Jan 09

I’ve heard a bit about it through old SES volunteers who were around at the time. Apparently it can’t happen again due to changes made to the drainage system after the floods.

Skidbladnir Skidbladnir 10:15 am 22 Jan 09

When I was at Marist there was just a vague occasional mention from a few of the older teachers about how dangerous stormwater drains could be, and that the Yarralumla Creek (now a stormwater drain that runs between Pearce and Mawson down to near where Diornus is ( where it meets the other stormwater drain what used to be another, different creek)) specifically had killed people back in the 70’s.

Nobody ever went into any detail when we asked questions. 🙁

ant ant 10:21 am 22 Jan 09

that second story is pretty full-on, what a horrible experience that policeman had. I have a very vague recollection that at some point, that creek went into a pipe or under a bridge or something, and The people who died at been drawn into that, and trapped.

la mente torbida la mente torbida 10:22 am 22 Jan 09


I think you’re right. It used to be a t-intersection between Yamba and Melrose (prior to the roundabout). The section of road that spanned the storm water channel was a series of concrete pipes below the road. With the flood of water, the pipes were blocked by debris, causing a backup and flooding of the roadway. Cars were then washed from the intersection and into the storm water channel below Curtin.

I stil remember the night.

Steady Eddie Steady Eddie 10:30 am 22 Jan 09

The flood happened a month after we moved to Canberra. There was no self government in the ACT and the various bureaucrats and ministers did their best to shuffle responsibility and try to get the public to forget it ever happened. That is the reason there is no memorial – nobody ever suggested it and the powers-to-be certainly were not going to erect one. The only memorial is the Yarra Glen roundabout which was built after the flood – prior to this there was just a T-intersection, there weren’t even any traffic lights.

SadMushroom SadMushroom 10:38 am 22 Jan 09

I was only young but remember because most of Queanbeyan was under water.
There is a story on,

Beserk Keyboard Warrior Beserk Keyboard Warrior 10:42 am 22 Jan 09

I think 5 of the deceased were from one family (possibly Reynolds?). They were all young, with ages ranging between about 5 and 21 from memory. The bodies eventually washed up adjacent to the North Curtin playing fields.

The rather large overpass on Carruthers street was also built as a result of the tragedy as one of the deaths occurred there.

Woden has always been a natural flooding zone. The downpour wasn’t as “freakish” as it may have sounded. The CT article the following day claimed it was a “once in 10 year” storm. It was therefore inevitable that the trgedy was going to happen given the inadequate drainage system in place.

Danman Danman 11:02 am 22 Jan 09

EMA website here claims that the stormwater system was engineered for a once in a 100 year flood, and the urbanisation of land that used to be natural buffer i.e. grasslands anmd woodlands was a contributing factor.

Thumper Thumper 11:11 am 22 Jan 09

Being that this is a city of memorials, I’d like to see the choppere thing taken down and a real memorial put up in it’s place.

it does somehow seem to be the right thing to do in hindsight.

Timberwolf65 Timberwolf65 11:14 am 22 Jan 09

Sorry wasn’t yet born, but it was interesting to read about it.

ant ant 11:14 am 22 Jan 09

Notice in the accounts Danman put up, mention that it had been raining for a week. I remember when that used to happen, in teh 60s and 70s, 80s too I think. Heavy, steady rain for days at a time.

That’s something we don’t get any more.

Skidbladnir Skidbladnir 11:26 am 22 Jan 09

They’ll just stick a plaque on Diornus and say “In memoriam for citizens T, U, V, W, X, Y, and Z”…

Remember: we’re in harsh financial times, and Stanhope is a prick.

peterh peterh 11:35 am 22 Jan 09

Skidbladnir said :

They’ll just stick a plaque on Diornus and say “In memoriam for citizens T, U, V, W, X, Y, and Z”…

Remember: we’re in harsh financial times, and Stanhope is a prick.

that we can’t get rid of, as the greens won’t no-confidence him…

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