SCAT paramedic Tim Thistleon and Dr Michael Novy. Photo: Adam Hollingworth
Andy Dunn had helped us score a coup – our parents’ permission to go to the river. So long as we didn’t swim in the water we were good to go. In summer holidays at Cooma North going bush was a brilliant option, a win for the boys and everyone else stuck at home with our idle antics.
Younger brother Tim came too. Three scrawny brats yet to reach their teens, hitch-hiking in thongs along the road’s edge, hopes soaring at the sound of an approaching car, hearts sinking as it passed, legs pumping when another one pulled over.
The Murrumbidgee River cut through the dreary landscape like a green ribbon. We followed a slim path through steep, chalky brown banks, on to stepping-stones marking the way, through scrubby undergrowth until we came to a clearing on a bend in the river, which had created a crisp, sandy beach.
A command post for the tragedy-marred 2011 Christmas Eve operation. Photo: Sylvia Liber
We were in the water in a flash, ducking, diving and letting the current sweep us in seconds down to the rapids 50 metres downstream. Dad’s warnings of the river’s treachery were a distant memory. Andy was the most confident swimmer. He pulled us back when we got onto trouble.
Only on shore, waiting for the sun to dissolve our purple goose bumps, did we realise how icy the water had been. Sunlight and soft, warm sand soon thawed our shivering chills.
Another morning, when Dad drove us to the river, we headed in a different direction to fish for trout. We tried lures, worms freshly dug and a combination of both, but as the sun rose higher our lines swayed loosely in the breeze. Neither Dad nor I noticed Tim wander off, up to a high-span bridge, until he began laughing from his high perch and pissing into the steamy river below.
When the Snowy Mountains Scheme disbanded Andy’s family moved to Canberra. Dad transferred in the post office to Harden where the surrounding countryside was well worked for cropping and sheep grazing, leaving fewer options for bush adventures.
One redeeming feature was the town’s pool, where I spent most afternoons adding to the number of laps I had swum the day before. Tim had long given up tagging along with me. He had his own mates and besides, sharing a bedroom in our mid-teens had created tension.
“You’re a joke,’’ he’d say on my return from the pool. “Even I could beat you.’’
I could pull him into line back then, but that didn’t stop his taunting. So I challenged him.
“Carn then, let’s see how you go.’’
I wasn’t going to hold back. I’d thrash Tim in a swimming race and wouldn’t let him live it down either.
So off the blocks we dived with 100 metres of clear lanes ahead. I got a fright when I saw swift legs generating millions of tiny bubbles well ahead of me, but they were so far along the pool I thought it must be a third swimmer, having a prank on the both of us.
That is, until I arrived at the other end, hot lungs exhausted, and saw Tim sitting on the edge, relaxed with a smirk across his face. “You’re a joke.’’
And so it went, in swimming carnivals and on the football field. Tim excelled as an outside centre with a happy knack of finding the try line as often as he liked. Beyond school, he won selection for Riverina while at university at Wagga.
In his early career he worked for the NRMA. But his heart wasn’t in it. He kept beavering away until he was accepted into the Ambulance Service, from where he qualified as a paramedic and later joined the Special Casualty Access Team, learning bushcraft, basic and advanced roping, caving, canyoning, mountaineering, mines rescue and white water survival. In 1996 he was seconded to the Westpac Rescue Helicopter.
When winter fog lifted over Australia’s deepest gorge at Bungonia, east of Goulburn in 1997, Tim abseiled 260 metres down a cliff to retrieve a base jumper in his mid-20s.
The Sydney Morning Herald’s Malcolm Brown reported the base jumper had joined three others the day before, when his parachute apparently snared against the cliff-face, throwing him into the rock.
Tim, attempting the longest abseil of his life, was hoping against hope as he swung himself, pendulum-like, across the cliff-face that the man, who had been hanging all night cloaked in his parachute, was still alive.
But the man, believed to be in his mid-20s, had horrific head injuries.
Two women who were at the top of the cliff raised the alarm, but by the time rescuers arrived it was dark and wet and the victim, two-thirds of the way down the cliff, could not be reached safely.
Chief pilot Jon Klopper said that when the helicopter arrived at the cliff top the fog was rolling in.
‘‘It would have been impossible to attempt anything with the helicopter itself and it was going to be a very long abseil,’’ he said. ‘‘We simply considered it too dangerous to try anything that night.’’
After collecting the body, Tim made his way down the remaining 60 metres to a Police Rescue Squad officer and two volunteer rescuers who had walked into the gorge via a track.
A more uplifting rescue, albeit stemming from a suicide, happened in 2002. A woman from Unanderra died instantly after jumping from a 100m cliff, but when the SCAT team were called they found alive a five-year-old boy who plummeted with his 31-year-old mother.
By 8pm, the Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter was on its way to the site, guided by flares lit by an ambulance rescue crew.
It was a moonless night and nothing was visible beneath the dense canopy of trees. The chopper was forced to hover dangerously close to the cliff, and rain had started to fall, fogging pilot Peter Yates’s view.
The first attempt to winch Tim and Dr Michael Novy down to the site was aborted. The pair was spinning on the cable, buffeted by the wind. Tim had spotted a small gap in the canopy and thought they could give it another go. Down the pair went into the darkness, expecting to find two bodies.
Shining their torches over rugged and slippery terrain, they soon found the woman. Her body had come to rest on a tree, about 20m down the 60-degree slope at the foot of the cliff.
Pilot Yates sent down a call: the weather was closing in and they should try to get out immediately.
According to the Sun Herald’s story, Tim had pleaded for a few more minutes to look for the child.
‘‘Believe it or not, I started to develop a feeling the child was alive,’’ he said. But, reluctantly, he agreed to go. The cable came down, ready to winch them, but it became snagged in trees.
Pilot Yates decided he could not risk another attempt, and flew back to the Wollongong helipad to refuel and wait for a break in the weather.
It was a fateful decision, because it meant the search for the boy could continue. The rescuers at the cliff foot walked north, where the terrain was even steeper and the track narrower. They heard a high-pitched cry Tim thought could be the child, but Dr Novy said it was more likely a possum.
They walked on towards a rocky outcrop, when suddenly Dr Novy heard Tim say, ‘‘Oh my God, you’re f***ing kidding me’’.
A sandy-haired boy dressed in a blue T-shirt and orange shorts, was sitting up and looking into their torchlight. He was pale, bewildered, terrified and asking for his mother.
Tim fumbled for his radio and called to crewman Matthew Scott: ‘‘Urgent! We’ve found the boy. He’s alive!’’
Dr Novy began to examine the child but, apart from a bump on the wrist and multiple abrasions, there were no obvious injuries. Tim, himself a father, could not stand back any longer.
‘‘I thought, stuff this, what this kid needs is a cuddle.’’
The crew later travelled to London to accept the Prince Phillip Helicopter Rescue Award.
In May 2003 I was working at the Goulburn Post when the paramedics’ media rang, offering a photograph of a dramatic rescue in a swollen creek in Bexley, Sydney. First a man, then a woman, were plucked from two partially submerged cars. This was of little interest to our Goulburn readers, but I asked for the photos.
As the images downloaded onto my screen a paramedic appeared in a helmet and wetsuit, opposite a rain-soaked woman sitting on an almost submerged car. I asked for his identity. It was Tim. He later told a Fairfax reporter he had snatched the stranded woman’s handbag and shoes from her before carrying her to safety, otherwise she would have refused to leave. His mates dubbed him ‘‘the bag snatcher’’.
On Christmas eve in 2011 in fading light he was involved in a rescue which went tragically wrong. Tim’s mate Mick Wilson was killed while trying to rescue an injured canyoner at Bridal Veil Falls, south west of Wollongong. The 42 year-old from the same suburb as Tim suffered internal injuries after slamming into a cliff wall while suspended from a helicopter. The circumstances are still under investigation.
The son of Australian Wallaby Bevan Wilson, Mick represented his state in cricket and rugby, had genuine humility and as his wife says, had charisma in spades.
Fairfax later reported 600 paramedics swamping Sydney’s St James Church to pay tribute to Mick Wilson who risked his life to save others for just $32.50 an hour.
I have recounted all the rescues above from the Fairfax files and can only recount snatches of detail from Tim. From what I can gather, after the accident, he abseiled from the top of the falls and found Mick wedged in boulders on the ground. With the canyoner already injured, and the helicopter out of the picture, Tim tried to extricate his mate. In the end all he could do was hold in his arms, listening and feeling as his life ebbed away into the darkness.
How the rest of the night was spent, stabilising the injured canyoner and waiting for other rescuers to arrive defies imagination. Tim said it became apparent to him later that Mick, although critically injured, had continued to care for his patient for as long as he could.
In mid-December with two colleagues Tim returned to Bridle Veil’s thick rainforest and huge boulders with a stone mason and National Parks and Wildlife Service staff and placed a plaque into stone for Mick Wilson. On the same day Mick’s wife Kellie was presented with the Ambulances Service’s highest award , the Distinguished Service Medal – posthumously awarded to Mick.
Tim’s a rare face at family gatherings. The first I saw him following the accident was at Mum and Dad’s home last month. He arrived late in the afternoon with beer, salads and salmon which he cooked for tea, slept on a mattress in the lounge room and left early the next morning. He gave us the barest of updates on his physical injuries, which add to his smashed knee from the Bungonia abseil.
Over breakfast he asked if he’d called out during the night. Yes he had, in the quiet before dawn, when sleep usually conquers even tormented minds. It was a tell-tale shout, like a rip signalling all is not right deeper down.
The aftermath of this tragedy lingers long after stories are filed and readers turn the page of a newspaper. It goes on, worse than the surf’s big breakers Andy Dunn used to tell us about at Tathra, when the Nippers dived under and clutched at the sand, waiting for sunshine to come through the receding wash.