"Thredbo: A Personal Narrative" by Michael Coley

Gunning SES volunteer Michael Coley (left) with Gary Poile from Collector SES.

Preface (Ann Darbyshire)

Gunning SES volunteer Michael Coley, together with fellow SES volunteers Gary  Poile, Koley Quirk and the late Jim Quirk, all from Collector, was among the first responders to the Thredbo disaster of 30 July 1997.  This is his first hand account of the three tumultuous days during which they assisted with the efforts to deal with disaster during which Stuart Diver was rescued. 18 others were killed.

Mike's account is a very personal 'warts and all' recounting of the back breaking work, the tedium, the lack of communication, the harshness of media scrutiny and the inevitable dynamics of different personalities at play - some great - others - well read on...!

It provides a compelling background to one small part of the volunteer effort in the face of Thredbo disaster of 20 years ago.

Thredbo: A Personal Narrative

On Wednesday night, 30 July 1997, I went to bed at 10 pm in the spare bedroom with a quarter Mogadon to help me sleep.  My sleep had been interrupted the night before because of an accident to our neighbour Ken, who had been ministered to by Wendy and our friend Pam, a nurse.

Thursday, 31 July 1997
At 4.23 am Wendy woke me up to tell me that Gary, our SES controller, had phoned to say we had been called out.  I was to call him back.

I spoke to Gary a few minutes later.  He said he had received a callout for a landslip at Thredbo - he didn’t have any details but the person who had rung him had sounded “panicky”.  He asked me to meet him in Canberra.

I said I couldn’t get to Canberra but I had enough diesel in my car to get me to Collector, provided he could give me some diesel when it came for me to return.  I also said we would have to stop in Canberra at my office so I could let them know what was going on and in particular to tell my boss Megan where she could find some work I had done the day before on the computer system, so it could be progressed.  On this basis I agreed to go.

I ran upstairs to the bedroom to put my gear together and to chase Wendy out of bed to get me breakfast.  After a shower and putting everything together I left at about 5 am.  I took the 25 km dirt road and got to Collector at about 5.25.  As I sped across the dirt I mused that it would be ironic if I had an accident on the way to join my unit!

We left Collector at 5.40 through the crisp dawn in the freezing Gunning truck, four across the cabin, Gary driving with Koley Quirk, deputy controller, Jim Quirk, her father, and me.  We arrived at the corner of Northbourne Avenue and Cooyong Street in Canberra City at 6.30.  I raced off to the office, a block away, let myself into the building and did what was needed.  While I’d told Gary I would be ten minutes it was broad daylight at 6.50 as I raced across Northbourne Avenue to join them at the corner after they’d filled the truck and the Jerry cans with petrol.

On through South Canberra, Williamsdale, Michelago, Bredbo and Bunyan to Cooma.  On one of the long straights on the way to Cooma we were hounded and overtaken by a new Isuzu police rescue van that was then baulked by another vehicle.  For a moment that there might have been a concertina-ed police/SES vehicle on the highway as we caught up fairly quickly but as usual Gary was up to the task, both avoiding an accident and conserving the brakes on the 25 year old truck.

At Cooma we put on our hazard lights to permit us reasonably quick passage, which had no effect on one elderly gentleman in a four wheel drive and a hat who persisted in blocking our way through the town before moving over in his own leisurely time.

Jindabyne loomed at 9.05 and we looked for the SES headquarters, finally finding it conveniently located in an industrial area three kilometres out of town.  There we met up with a number of units, including ones from Crookwell and Pambula-Eden.  Coffee was boiled as the leaders sought to find out when we were needed, the message finally being that we should set out to reach Thredbo at 2 pm.  Consequently we had four hours to burn.  After more leisurely coffee the decision was made to return to the centre of Jindabyne to eat and get some stores.

Back in the centre of Jindabyne we went to a ski shop where we purchased personal equipment suitable for very cold weather, including beanies and skiers’ gloves, more suitable socks, leather preservative and waterproofing for our boots, and pocket knives and lanyards for some.  My first thoughts were that this was extravagant, but the next few days were to prove the wisdom of the expenditure.

Then we stocked up with food - inside us.  Hamburgers and fish and chips were demolished in short order.  In some ways this was less of an investment than the equipment as the food at Thredbo was plentiful and sustaining, but it did wonders for morale at the time.

By then there had been a change of plan – we were to be off to Thredbo at 12 noon.  Past the gates to the Kosciusko National Park entrance where about 20 vehicles, including several with media markings, had been stopped by the police.  By this time I was in the back cabin of the truck with Jim and Koley in the front and Gary driving and as we passed a video photographer aimed his camera at our very ancient but photogenic truck.

At Thredbo village SES people and the police stopped us at the bridge on the valley floor at the entrance to the village but after a while they allowed our truck and a few others through.  So we were there.  The landslide was a sombre and eerily quiet sight, the scar ending one row of buildings above the main road at the valley floor with a few sad clods of earth and small branches that had found their way down the hill between the buildings lying there somewhat neglected.

After parking, getting into our winter clothing and finding our bearings we headed up the steps to Roslyn Lodge, the SES’s headquarters.  We mulled around for a while, and as there was nothing apparently happening on the west side of the slide, Jim and I went down the steps again at about 2.45 to get to the eastern side.  There chains of SES had formed behind the firemen who were gently beginning to clear the first of the rubble, passing it along the chain hand to hand.  This was to be the main pattern for the next two days; work on the chains punctuated by evacuation from the site.

At the same time Gary and Koley, from whom we had been separated, were at the top on the Alpine Way monitoring the slide from there and later building a sandbag wall to stop the water that was still seeping out of the slide.

During this period, as well as rubbish removal on the chains we did a number of odd jobs. These included passing down conduit and some fire hoses and later setting these up to remove water pumped from the bottom of the high slide, which was supported by the sandbag wall that Gary and Koley were working on.

The sun went down at 4 pm over the opposite, northwestern, ridge, Crackenback.  At about 4.15 we were once again evacuated, to vantagepoints just off the site, to allow the helicopter to lower an inspector onto the site at the end of a 50-metre rope without our being sprayed with rubble by the downdraft.  This was only a few weeks after the Canberra implosion tragedy where a girl had been killed by flying rubble, so we were all being extra careful.

The inspector looked at the three vehicles perched in top of the rubble and was then lifted off by the helicopter, which was sufficiently high so the rotor’s downdraft caused very little if any rubble to move.

After the helicopter went we continued with the chain for a time and did a few things including putting a rope over the bough of a tree to hold an electricity cable to power some of the many lights put up to illuminate the work of clearing the slide.  It was about this time that Jim and I were photographed at the front of the chain by The Canberra Times’ photographer, Graham Tidy, and Who magazine.

We were then ordered back to Roslyn, where we had dinner, cooked by the indefatigable band of young women who appeared from everywhere to assist the caterer.  Fortunately it wasn’t a case of SES cooking or driver reviver, “Coffee, tea or Milo?  Kit-kat?  Crumpet and honey?”

The first body
Our next assignment was about 8 pm.  It was another chain, this time from the middle of the bottom of the slide up the west side to the middle level road where the trucks could reach.  We were rotated in fives from the front of the chain and for a while I was at the head of the SES line, which started after about five firemen.  Jo, a young woman from Queanbeyan, and Koley were next to me.  It was black all around the site but we were being lit brightly by the arc lights.  We hadn’t been advised of what the precise nature of our clearance was, but there was rumour of a body.

Jo and Koley became quite solicitous, knowing that I was new to this game, asking whether I felt all right and suggesting it would be better if I didn’t faint.  At this time I had seen nothing to disturb me but if I looked very carefully I could see a shape in a shallow hollow that had been cleared.  With some imagination, as the specific spot wasn’t brightly lit, I could make out the head and torso of what appeared to be a man dressed in a long sleeved blue shirt, slumped facing away from me almost like the top half of Rodin’s Thinker from above and behind.

From my right along the chain came the neatly folded blue body bag followed a minute or so later by a metal cage stretcher.  As things became clearer Jo and Koley took matters into their own hands, gently but firmly easing me back to number three in the line.  Strangely, before they moved me I was quite all right; the body somehow didn’t appear real.  After that it got to me to a small extent and I stood behind Koley while the body was manoeuvred into position, not deliberately not looking, but not looking just the same.

Five minutes later the stretcher came back with the blue bag on it, being passed hand to hand by a double row of SES.  I thought “I know this is a body but it’s still rather unreal”.  I was also reminded of the definition of “clinical”, the erroneous definition that was the best way to describe the whole scene, which naturally had a surrealistic quality to it, as did all chain work at night.  I checked my watch for the record and found it was 8.40 pm.  “We” had recovered the first body, though at the time it could have been the second as we hadn’t been told that the body had been found, at 6 pm.  One problem for the SES workers throughout the time I was there was the continually frustrating lack of information on what was going on and how our efforts were contributing to the overall goal.

After the body went the chain was once again disbanded and so back to Roslyn, where Jim and I were asked to go up to the Alpine Way at the top to relieve some SES people who had been monitoring the top of the slide.  We got there at 10 pm and began a long vigil with two policemen, our ears thumped by the sound of the generator.  We were given a compressed air klaxon to sound if the top of the slide moved or if the embedded boulders appeared to be getting loose.  There was no sign of either.

I became bored; sentry duty is not my preference.  So I looked for some interesting way to pass the time but keep to our duty.  We had come up the side of Thredbo from the mid level through a series of step ways but the lodge adjacent to the slide, the Schuss Lodge, was not part of the steps.  It did, however, have a series of steps down to its entrance, which continued further down to a small alleyway, which led to a patio overlooking Thredbo, and from which the face of the slip could be easily viewed.  It also has the advantage of some wooden seats, and by now my feet were starting to suffer considerably, the arthritis in my right toe joint was joining forces with the spur under my left heel to make walking a distinctly awkward proposition.

We continued there till 12.30 am, when we were relieved.  Down to Roslyn and straight on to the Silver Brumby, a hotel/motel/resort lodge, where we found a room, as had been arranged by the ever-resourceful Gary.  

And so to bed after one of the longest days of my life.  Even so, sleep was not easy.  My left foot throbbed for about half an hour and woke me up from time to time, but sooner or later I slept.

Friday, 1 August 1997
I had told Gary that I would wake up in time for us to go to breakfast at 7 am.  In the event he woke up first and woke me at 6.30.  We dressed in all our layers - underclothing, sweatshirt, sweater, overalls and cold jacket - and wandered down to the headquarters, making sure the ice that had formed on the roadway didn’t see us damaged by our bouncing on our bums.

Breakfast, like all the meals at Roslyn, was excellent, particularly good for working hard in the cold.  We met up with Koley and Jim and after some time the SES group as a whole was called outside.

The purpose of the announcement was that we were to be reorganised into new groups.  I hadn’t taken much notice of the details previously but it was obviously a change and a new order came out that had me and about 99 per cent of the SES volunteers fuming:  we were not to appear to be loafing!  Apparently the Premier and the Commissioner of Police, who had inspected the disaster, had received complaints that the SES were looking slack, especially in the sight of the relatives.  I was furious; we had come to the scene of the disaster from all parts of southern New South Wales at literally a moment’s notice.  We had obeyed instructions from police, firemen, senior SES and Uncle Tom Cobbley and now we were loafing!

Considering we were the only ones there who were not being paid – and the police and the firemen were almost certainly on penalty rates - the criticism was not just unjustified, it was totally insulting.  Not for the first time was it said that the head of NSW SES, “Horrie”, should have been there to look after our interests politically.

Jim and I were then sent to undertake what was described as a “crack watch”.  The description gave rise to some ribald humour but what it was supposed to involve was Jim and me going down to our truck, picking up some yard brooms, and going up to the east side of the middle road to watch an apparent fault for signs of movement.  When the Kato machine ran over the road at the same spot it seemed that this particular activity was somewhat superfluous, so Jim volunteered to work with the police as a liaison officer and I went off to find a chain gang, which was not difficult.

I joined a team that turned out to be Jindabyne SES.  It included Carla, whom we had met the night before and who had become separated from the other Jindabyne people but who was staying at a friend’s place in Thredbo, and a number of other people whom I was to get to know reasonably well over the next 36 hours.

We were running a chain on the northeast side from the bottom of the slide, around Leatherbarrel lodge up to the trucks on the mid level road.  As usual there was the chant of “heavy!” “nails!” and “personal!” with the usual changing of the guard, three at a time going from the front of the chain nearest the firemen to the top near the truck and starting down again.

I was located next to a youngish blonde haired woman who was talking to the young man on her other side on the chain.  At one point I mindlessly passed a piece of roof timber to her to be reminded, in sharp tone, not to poke her eye out.  It was the first cross word I had heard from anyone since arriving at Thredbo and I was hurt; I felt that had she been concentrating there would have been no need for her to worry. I few minutes later there was a cry for a chainsaw from the front of the chain, which I continued to her, behind me, to be told scornfully “there it is!” - behind me under a porch.  Once again this person had succeeded in getting on my nerves.  Not long afterwards we broke for lunch as the authorities once again checked for signs of life and slippage.

At lunch I was off in my own reverie - there was little to do at the time - and food was being passed around.  Someone asked me if I wanted a cake and indicated where one could be obtained.  I got up and went to get one when lo and behold, who should be handing them round but the same woman! There were two on the plate and as I hummed and ha-ed about taking two she once again chided me - for indecision.

After lunch Jim and I were asked to take our generator round to the eastern side and were told we would have to take an escort with us so we could get past the police line, which apparently for some reason or another was being very officious. The generator was up near Roslyn lodge and Jim and I were faced with the prospect of taking it around by hand so we decided to commandeer a vehicle.

We found an elderly Toyota Landcruiser with keys in the ignition and put the generator in the back. While we doing this we somehow lost our escort so Koley, Jim and I were faced with a wait.  While we were waiting who should come up but some of the Jindabyne unit, including a small arrogant man who was their leader and who had already offended Koley in one clash or another, and the Jindabyne woman!  They were all about to go to Jindabyne for their stand-down so they re-commandeered the truck, arrogantly on the part of the little controller, but this time with humour and grace by the blonde woman, who I by now knew to be called Rhonda, and whom I had immediately christened “Rhonda the Rotten”.  On this occasion, however, she was quite friendly so all was forgiven, though the name stuck.

Somehow we got a new escort, a Goulburn warder called Snake, and got down the hill where we were stopped; there was activity on the slide and no one was allowed past the bottom.  So we mooched around, being amused by an altercation between a policeman and a fireman caused, presumably, by the frustration of the holdup. At the same time the Jindabyne Landcruiser was at the head of the traffic that was held up by the same delay.  Some grieving relatives went by but there was little we could do so we did nothing.

About five minutes later the little Jindabyne controller came up to us and reminded us of the instruction earlier in the day that we were to look busy at all times.  This time my frustration let loose - I asked him what he would have us do, run up and down to look busy?  It should have been obvious to him that we were all held up by the same thing that was holding him up and there wasn’t anything we could do; we wanted to get the generator up to the other side but couldn’t.  He grunted and went away with his tail between his legs.

Finally we completed our mission and Jim and Koley went off to work with the police on the eastern side.  I was at a loose end so I joined another chain, mainly from Queanbeyan, until dark, when we all went back to the lodge for dinner.

At about 8 pm a controller came out asking for volunteers for another chain.  A group went off and some minutes later there was a request for more volunteers for a second chain.  Both of these were clearing rubble from the bottom, near where we had recovered the body the night before.  We all worked very hard for about an hour; I started at the bottom of the chain but went up to the top after a while.  We gradually moved around the line, three and five at a time, with the result that at one point Koley, who was next to me, was passing Besser blocks up a 75 degree slippery grassy incline to my feet, and I was lifting them to the next person above my head.  I thought that my back would kill me the next day but somehow it held out very well.

After the hour back to Roslyn, where I lay flat on my back on the floor for about half an hour with people walking around me, equally stuffed, occasionally getting good-natured banter about dead bodies such as me on the floor.

The evening ended at 11 pm and I trudged off to the Silver Brumby, where all our gear was still in the rooms we had occupied the night before.  I was in my full outside gear, including jacket, so I looked like a bright orange Michelin Man.

I passed through the common room on the mezzanine floor and noticed there were people there, but took little notice.  I took our keys off the rack and started back, via the common room, for our rooms. As I did so a young woman detached herself from the other group and asked whether she could get me anything and invited me to join their group.  I was dog-tired, but the sight of this fresh young woman, and her friendliness, revived me immediately so I sat down with them.  I am not usually blind to attractive young women, so I was very surprised that as well as the first one there were another four!  They had been drinking white wine and Schnapps but were friendly rather than overcome by their alcohol.  They offered me a white wine, which I accepted eagerly.

They were on holiday, bored and celebrating one of their number’s 20th birthday.  But being in Thredbo during the dramas they were also very interested in what was going on.  After a while we were joined by Jim and Koley, and later Gary, all of whom were greeted with the same interest and alcohol.  They were leaving the next day at the end of their week’s holiday.  Ironically, given the events of the following day, we all gave the opinion that no one could be found alive under the landslide.

At 12.30 I decided that I’d better get some sleep, as we needed to be up before 7 the next morning. Gary followed soon after and we decided that it wasn’t just the absence of our wives that made us rate the beauty of the five ministering angels very highly.  We slept.

Saturday, 2 August 1997
Next morning saw us heading down through the ice to Roslyn.

After breakfast Koley, Jim and I were assigned “point duty”.  I thought “beauty” - an opportunity to say goodbye to the angels as they left Thredbo in their bus.  No such luck; our “point” was a security detail two chalets down the hill from the police control centre to prevent the media from entering the perimeter of the disaster area.  Security detail is too inactive for me so I moved around a bit, as we had been permitted.  Koley had a portable radio to keep us in touch with control.

At 7.40 I heard the most extraordinary thing.  I had walked up a flight of steps so I was immediately below the building housing the police control centre.  From my position I could hear a police radio and astoundedly heard that “...there’s a person alive and walking around under the rubble!”  I went off to tell Koley and Jim and we agreed that this all sounded most unlikely, especially as we hadn’t been given any news.

We continued our guard duty till 10.30; a boring time was had by all - it seemed to be overkill, especially as there was another perimeter of SES people on the road immediately below us.  Then back to Roslyn, where Koley had her foot tended to; she had tweaked its tendons slipping while descending on icy steps earlier that morning.  Koley was then sent off as an escort for a tradesman inspecting the houses around the slide, and at 11 am Jim and I were sent to the top to repeat our duty of the first night - checking to see whether there was any movement at the top of the slide.

This time we were split up.  Jim went to Schuss Lodge again, where he could examine the slide in comfort from the patio, and I went down the hill through the trees on the northeast side to a vantage point level with the sandbag wall that was preventing water seeping further down the hill.

This time the policeman at the top asked us to consult before we sounded our klaxons if we saw anything.  I thought this was somewhat weird, as I was located on the side if the landslide directly below a boulder embedded in the side of the face at about an angle of 60 degrees above me.  If anything had happened it would have been very suddenly and consultation time would have been limited to about half a second as I got out of the path of the rolling boulder.  Not that I expected such a thing to happen; if the boulder was loose it would have presumably been carried away in the original slide.

Shortly after reaching my vantage point I was hailed by the fireman who was looking after the pump that was continuously emptying the little seepage pond created by the sandbank wall.  He needed assistance to move another pump that had been replaced as it hadn’t been doing the job efficiently. We moved the pump away from the pond and over into some trees.  We then chatted; his detail was to monitor the pump and it was going fine.  He then said that it was very important that we be careful at the time as they were digging Stuart Diver out alive!  By that time the only inkling I had that anyone had survived was the extraordinary radio message I had heard that morning and had by then discounted as there was no information as to what was happening.

I asked the fireman how he knew.  He said he was a Thredbo fireman and knew all the people who had been caught in the landslide, and that Euan Driver, Stuart’s brother, who was a volunteer fireman with the Thredbo brigade, was helping with the rescue.

By this time my emotions were very mixed; basically I was pissed off.  Here we were, volunteers who had disrupted our lives to contribute what we could to addressing a major disaster, and the powers that be couldn’t keep us even moderately informed.  I was also heartily sick of the attitude of the police to the SES, which was basically reprehensible.  The firemen were fine, but they also had their difficulties with the police attitude, as had been demonstrated with the altercation at the bottom of the slide the day before.

I was relieved from my detail at about 1.30 and Jim and I made our way back to Roslyn, where we had a meal and Gary told us that he wanted us to help him with administrative duties.

It was quite a strange afternoon for a while; at one point, after Stuart Diver had been rescued and the helicopter gone, Koley was deputed to organise a small detail to go and assist on the chains.  This was to include two people from Nimmitabel, Jim, Koley and me.  The two people from Nimmitabel got through to the chains, but a young policeman stopped the three of us, somewhat rudely.  He asked us where we were going and Koley explained the situation.  He said we couldn’t go any further without the say-so of the SES leader on the slide, but he refused to help us get that person.  I became angry at his overbearing and unhelpful attitude and told him so in no uncertain terms; here we were, volunteers, trying to a job to the best of our ability and his attitude to us, just because we weren’t being paid, unlike him, was totally unacceptable.  This exchange led me at the end of the year being given Gunning SES’ Dummyspit-of-the-Year award.  I treasure that award.

We then waited for a moment but immediately Gary came up to us to say that he wanted us to continue the administrative work of booking teams in and out of the SES headquarters as they needed, quite reasonably, to know who was available for the various tasks.  This we continued to do from about 4 pm until 8 pm.

Gary said we were due to leave at 8 pm so, taking him at his word, I booked us out with the allocation group.  Gary then said that we would have to wait for the Sydney reinforcements, which had been mooted at 2 pm but were now to arrive at 9 pm.

This they did, in hordes, all brilliantly equipped, and led by a small young dynamo in a blue uniform who immediately managed to put everyone off side with his abrupt and domineering manner, a situation he was clearly aware of because he addressed one of the executives, Joy, and apologised “in advance” for his obviously provocative behaviour.  He was christened “Mr Bean” by some wag and it stuck.

At 11pm we gathered our gear together so we could take the truck to Berridale, where the staging post for the operation was located.

On our way down to the truck we were hailed from a window by an SES man we had met previously and a couple of young women, inviting us to a party.  We demurred and some time later got into the truck and away.  It was late and there was no feeling of personal fanfare or ceremony, just a feeling that we had done our best and that this was good enough.  We had all been enormously surprised that Stuart Diver had been found alive, but while we may have harboured some hopes that there would be more, I was certain that it couldn’t be; one could only hope that they died quickly and suddenly.

We stopped at Jindabyne on the way through to Berridale where we had some food at the Southern Cross motel when we arrived at the staging post.  By this time my feet were showing signs of considerable stress, but after padding barefoot across the yard to the motel room building, finally to bed in a six person, three bunk, room.

Sunday, 3 August 1997
The snoring through the night was orchestral in scope, with Jim as the basso profundo.  But I was sufficiently tired to sleep easily and long before being stirred by movement at 7 am.

Breakfast was minimal but sufficient and after breakfast Jim and I did the rounds through the fog and the frost inspecting the various SES vehicles parked at the back of the motel, whose owners had taken buses from Berridale to Thredbo.  They were varied and inspiring; we particularly liked the Toyota four-wheel drive Fairfield conversion, which was like our truck only efficiently miniature.

After a while we simply got into our truck and away, stopping in Cooma for food and then home.

At Collector I picked up my car and drove back to Gunning.  By then my feet were so sore that it was hard to feel the pedals properly but I got home safely to be given biblical treatment by Wendy, who put hot water in a bowl for me to rest my feet.

Feet!  That was the key.

I didn’t go to work on the Monday.  My feet were feeling awful and I was gradually coming down from the experience.  I had some kind of stress reaction to the events for the next couple of weeks, weird dreams with no apparent focus, but gradually they went and things got back to normal.

Everyone who was involved at Thredbo, to the best of my knowledge, was duly acknowledged. Gunning Shire Council gave us a certificate of appreciation and on 21 September we were all invited to a lunch at Government House, Sydney.  It was good and proper of the government to do this but I felt, as I had at Thredbo, that the paid services tended to be praised more than the volunteers were.

C’est la vie.