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Canberra marks 50 years from the Woden Valley flood which killed seven young people

By Craig Allen, Tuesday January 26, 2021 - 10:05 EDT
ABC licensed image
Residents scour the drainage channel in the wake of the January 1971 floods in Woden. - ABC licensed

Every year, for a few hours on January 26, now-retired police officer Blen McInnes sits at a stone memorial for the victims of the 1971 Woden Valley flood.

The events of that stormy night, which saw seven young people die, changed the course of his career, and still haunt him 50 years later.

"I wouldn't go past [the scene] for some time, because it upset me," Mr McInnes said.

"And even today, I'm getting goosebumps talking about it."

Fifty years on, the flood remains Canberra's deadliest natural disaster and the city's largest civilian loss of life.

Mr McInnes had been babysitting for friends in the Canberra suburb of Lyons, when there was a knock at the door in torrential rain at 8:25pm.

A stranger who had seen two men ? Pete Smith and Kevin Seymour ? clinging to a light pole in the middle of the floodwaters, was going door to door seeking help.

Mr McInnes did not have a rope to rescue the pair, so he went to the nearby Woden Valley RSL club, where he spied a flagpole.

"So I just unhooked [the rope] as if God was looking over my shoulder, unhooked it and it came down," Mr McInnes said.

"And it was only as big as your little finger, the width of the rope."

In a heroic effort that later saw him awarded a Queen's Commendation for Brave Conduct, the off-duty constable waded into the swollen river and made his way towards the two stranded men.

"Just as I got to the intersection where those two people were hanging onto the light pole, one behind the other with their hands interlocked, I pulled the rope from around my waist, and I just flicked it like a lasso," Mr McInnes said.

"And just as I did that, they let go, and I got them. Then we were hauled back to shore.

"That rope was so thin it could've broken anywhere, anytime, and we could've all been swept away like the previous seven young people. 

"I never talk about that much, but it's a fact."

How the tragedy unfolded

In late January 1971, Canberra was sweltering through a typically hot summer.

In the afternoon, as protestors gathered in Civic to engage in a silent prayer vigil against the Vietnam War, storm clouds began to build over the city.

But few could have imagined the tragedy about to beset the national capital.

That evening, a once-in-a-century storm pummelled the city's southern suburbs, dumping about 100mm of rain in a narrow band of the Woden Valley in just 50 minutes.

The stormwater infrastructure, choked with fallen timber and debris, ultimately failed to cope as the normally sedate Yarralumla Creek turned into a torrent of water 200 metres wide.

Soon cars were being swept away from a huge section of the low-lying arterial road, Yarra Glen, and nearby Yamba Drive.

That storm, and the flash flood it caused, cost the lives of seven young people, who were washed away from three vehicles trapped in the rising waters.

All the victims were aged under 20 ? the youngest, a boy, just six years old.

Two young men ? Lon Cumberland, 18, and Roderick Simon, 20, ? died when their vehicles were swept into the raging waters.

The five others who died that rainy night were travelling in one car ? siblings Carmel, 19, Margaret, 15, and Michael Smith, 6, and their cousins Jennifer, 12, and Dianne Seymour, 8.

Family member Pete Smith ? one of the two men Mr McInnes managed to rescue that night ? got stuck in the flood waters while trying in vain to save his siblings.

"Carmel, my eldest sister, was a trainee nurse. Very caring," Mr Smith said.

"Not only was she my sister, she was my best friend.

"We were a happy family."

Families out sightseeing when flood hit

Mr Smith was 17 at the time of the flood, and had been riding in the car ahead of the one driven by his sister Carmel.

He said the Smith family had been showing their visiting relatives the sights of Canberra, when they noticed trouble brewing on the horizon.

"The two families were out that night in two cars," he said.

"We were up on top of Red Hill and we saw the storm and thought, 'we'd better get home.'"

Mr Smith said when the vehicles came to the intersection of Yamba Drive, Melrose Drive and Yarra Glen, water had begun to cover the causeway.

"I was in the front car with the survivors, and [my siblings and cousins] were in the car following, and they didn't make it through the causeway," he said.

"We came to the intersection and we had to turn right. We got round okay, then we realised they weren't following, so we went back. 

"We could see the car in the water, and they were outside, hanging on to a guard rail."

Mr Smith said he and his uncle, Kevin Seymour, the second man Mr McInnes rescued, raced into the water in a frantic attempt to reach the stranded children.

"Not realising how strong the current was, we got swept away," Mr Smith said.

"The only thing we had to stop us was a lamppost, which I missed, and luckily Kevin grabbed the back of my belt and dragged me across. It saved my life."

Mr Smith and Mr Seymour spent about an hour clinging to that light pole, and never made it to his stranded sisters and brother before they lost their grip on the guard rail.

"[It was a] very strong current, then another foot and a half come on top of that, and just took them away," he said.

"We saw them go, we knew they were gone."

'The sadness of it all will never go away'

While the floodwaters had receded by the following day, it was days before the remains of some of Mr Smith's family members were recovered.

"They found the Seymour girls and my brother Michael that night, that was the Tuesday night," Mr Smith said.

"We didn't find the girls until Saturday afternoon. That was a long, long time."

The trauma of that night continued for many months for Mr McInnes as well, who was at the time attached to the Coroner's Office.

His duties included assisting in the recovery of the remains of the seven flood victims, and organising their identification and post mortem examinations.

"The sadness of it all will never go away," Mr McInnes said.

"They were beautiful children, I saw them after they were deceased. It was really heartbreaking."

Within days of the tragedy, government inquiries were underway into why the city's drainage infrastructure had failed in such a catastrophic way.

A coronial inquest opened within a month of the incident, while the government ordered a probe into the design of the major road that had been built alongside a flood-prone creek system.

It was later found that police and emergency services responses that night were "satisfactory", but there were criticisms of a lack of warning signs and depth indicators at key crossing points.

The National Capital Development Commission ? the Federal planning body responsible for designing Canberra's roadways at the time ? reported that the causeway was intended to overflow in heavy rain.

But social historian Nichole Overall said critics at the time argued that the development of the Woden Valley had happened too quickly for ageing infrastructure to keep up.

"There were suggestions after the event that the development had been too rapid, and that had led to the disaster," Mrs Overall said.

"The causeway was actually built to deal with floods, but they didn't expect the magnitude of the flood that occurred on that day."

Memorial built to honour lives lost

Mrs Overall said her late father-in-law, Sir John Overall, who had been head of the National Capital Development Commission in 1971, bore a heavy personal burden from the events of that night.

"John certainly was personally impacted by what had occurred. Nobody wants to see that sort of situation," she said.

"But when you know you have a degree of influence and significance in those roles, of course it's going to impact you, and it certainly did.

"I think he was a very visionary and forward-looking man, so it was a matter of 'This has occurred, now what can we do to ensure that nothing like this happens again?'"

Within a year, Sir John Overall's team had begun work on major road improvements to lift the level of Yarra Glen, with the fateful intersection replaced by a large elevated interchange incorporating massive drainage channels.

Today, a tall stone monument stands in a quiet glade alongside the road in the suburb of Curtin, surrounded by seating and gardens.

It was built after Mr McInnes, now 75, petitioned the ACT Government for a permanent monument to the seven lives lost.

"It's a place whereby people can go and cogitate, have a silent prayer vigil, lay a wreath or just light a candle, put a flower there," he said.

"We've got a place to remember the young persons' memories from."


© ABC 2021

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