'There was water blowing up everywhere. I was being moved by the force of the water'
It was the murky brown tide silently seeping up Agnes Street and the relatively benign memories of less significant floods that caught Ray and Lucille Gott out.
The elderly couple were used to their low-lying area flooding having lived in North Bundaberg for most of their 70-plus years and figured they would have plenty of time to make a dash for safety.
But this time the water didn't stop at the old 2011 flood mark of 7.9 metres. Instead it bubbled up quickly, spread out and joined in the middle of the street, and formed a fast flowing river in front of their rented old colonial home.
The sun rises over flooded streets as parts of southern Queensland experiences record flooding in the wake of Tropical Cyclone Oswald. Photo: Getty
"I was watching it the whole time on Sunday night and I said to Lucille, that's not stopping," said Ray, as he sat in one of Bundaberg's evacuation centres on Wednesday afternoon.
But by the time the couple realised the torrent was likely to swamp their home of 10 years it was too late to move.
The Gotts became two of about 1500 residents trapped by rising flood waters on the north side of the town with no way of rescue as the river rose to the unprecedented height of 9.5 metres.
Bundaberg devastated by flooding
Ambulances line up at Brisbane Airport to collect patients evacuated from Bundaberg Hospital being airlifted in by army Hercules. Photo: Michelle Smith
Over the next 24 hours emergency service helicopters and military Blackhawk helicopters were forced to airlift about 1300 people from the area including hundreds from the roofs of houses using risky long-line rescue techniques.
The rolling airlift led to extraordinary scenes of skill and courage as scores of elderly residents and children were neatly plucked from rooftops – in one case a baby was placed in a small carry bag and winched up to safety – and the skies above the flooded city echoed with the drone of the choppers throughout Monday and Tuesday.
But for the Gotts it seemed their helicopter would never get there.
"We would hear them all around and we went outside into the yard but the current was so strong," said Lucille.
"We grabbed hold of each other and we started yelling and waving. They [the rescue helicopter] came and landed up the street and there was just enough for them to land," said Lucille, 71.
"They came and landed up the street there was just enough to land at one point and they got a lady away. Then they came and got someone else and then they flew away," she said.
Eventually their helicopter arrived and lowered the rescuer down.
"There was water blowing up everywhere. I was being moved by the force of the water," said Ray, 76.
Lucille had to make a difficult choice. "He [the rescuer] kept saying to me to let go of him [Ray]. I was holding on to him. I didn't want to let him go," she said.
Lucille was winched up out of the way and the helicopter flew off.
"I thought I was a goner," said Ray.
"The helicopter had gone and without Lucille to hang on to I was getting slowly dragged away by the current. I was yelling 'hurry up' at the helicopter."
But within minutes another aircraft came in low and and a rescuer plucked him to safety. The pair were deposited at a local school but soon had to be evacuated again as the waters continued to rise.
Now relaxing in the large shed that Bundaberg Council has set up to accommodate about 3000 evacuees, Ray and Lucille can laugh about their experience.
"Just two months ago, I'd seen a helicopter flying over and I said to Lucille you'll never get me on one of those bloody things," said Ray. "Now I've been on one twice."
However like many they have lost everything. "All we could bring on the helicopter was a small backpack of emergency items," said Lucille.
The couple are hoping they will be allowed to return home by the weekend like the more than 750 who have been unable to find alternative accommodation and are relying on makeshift beds at the council evacuation centre on the outskirts of town.
And a council spokesman said on Wednesday afternoon, the council was holding meeting to try to arrange a mud army of about 400 residents to go back into the area and start the clean-up on Saturday and Sunday.
Asked if they would move from the area, Ray said, "No it's a great place to live."
"Next time we will leave a bit sooner though."