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Queensland floods 2011: Iconic rescue image: Where are they now?

Hannah Reardon-Smith and her mother Kathryn cling desperately to a power pole as an inland tsunami tears through Toowoomba.

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Stranded on a car roof: 2011 floods

James Perry and his family were filmed by a Seven News helicopter as their car was swept into a swollen Lockyer creek during the 2011 floods.

They've been washed from the precarious safety of a car rooftop into the raging water after the torrent smashed another vehicle against their refuge.

Firefighter Peter McCarron works desperately to pull the women to safety but the sheer force of water is too much.

A powerful wave hits the swift water rescue expert, the younger Reardon-Smith loses her grip and disappears for two terrifying seconds as a helpless crowd watches the broiling, brown river sweep her downstream.

Toowoomba Chronicle photographer Nev Madsen's Walkley Award-winning images have frozen those moments forever, conveying the terror of the 2011 floods, which claimed 12 lives, to people all around Australia and across the world.


"It just took on this feeling of watching a movie happening really," he said in the lead-up to the tragedy's fifth anniversary.

"I've been doing this job a long time and seen a lot of things but especially when Hannah's head went under water there was sort of that sinking feeling.

"I was still shooting and I couldn't do anything to help, but just that sinking feeling that you really didn't want to be witnessing what you thought you were witnessing, that she was not going to recover."

Fortunately she did. Through a combination of luck and bravery mechanic Steven Seefeld and tow-truck driver Jason Iacono, who'd arrived in Toowoomba's CBD minutes earlier to collect plane tickets, managed to pull her to safety.

"If she was a bit further out and we hadn't seen her she would have just been swept away," Mr Seefeld told Fairfax Media 10 days after the terrifying ordeal.

"The roar of the water was phenomenal. We couldn't have heard her."

It just took on this feeling of watching a movie happening really.

Nev Madsen

But somehow, in the time between Ms Reardon-Smith sinking under what had become a river running through Dent Street and being rescued, her mother had been knocked loose from the pole.

Peter, now the station officer at Toowoomba's Anzac Avenue fire station, thought Mrs Reardon-Smith had been lost.

It wasn't until hours later, after a full day protecting the town's residents from the uncontrollable wall of water, he was told she was safe but he denied being a hero.

"I was doing my job," he told The Chronicle when he was awarded a silver medal for bravery in 2012.

Ms Reardon-Smith, then 23, left Australia for a study tour shortly after her ordeal.

In the years since, the acclaimed flautist earned a Master of Philosophy in Music Performance at the University of Queensland, lived in Germany and Belgium and returned to Australia to create her own musical ensemble, Kupka's Piano.

Her mother, Kathryn, continued her work as a researcher at the University of Southern Queensland, finding ways to use digital technologies in gathering information and making decisions about climate change.

Mr Madsen remains as a photographer at The Chronicle, in his 27th year as a press photographer.

"(I'm still in) still disbelief I think that that really happened," he said.

"This time of year, when it starts to rain a lot, I don't think it's as bad now but in those first couple of years after, I think you could feel in the community people were actually quite nervous."

The anniversary comes after the $2.5 million Grantham Floods Commission of Inquiry found in October that the Wagner family's quarry previously blamed for contributing to the flood's intensity did not have a significant impact.

- With AAP

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