In one night, I lost everyone

Susan was on a family boat trip when her entire life changed forever...

Susan Berg, 45, Huntingdale, Vic

My heart raced as I paddled in the darkness. With my life vest digging into my neck, my body stung from the freezing cold water. As another wave lashed my face I spluttered and the salt stung my eyes, I felt like I’d been swimming for hours. Was I ever going to find the shore?

I was 15 years old when my parents Edwin and Valerie took me and my brother Bill, 16, on a fishing trip. Dad and Bill had lovingly restored the boat and it was only the second time we’d taken it out. I brimmed with excitement as we headed out on Western Port Bay in Victoria. ‘I bet I catch more fish than you,’ Bill teased as we cast our lines.

After a few hours in the sunshine we started heading back to shore. ‘Sossy,’ Dad smiled, using my pet name. ‘Do you want to drive the boat back?’ Excitedly taking the driver’s seat, I was rocketing across the waves when Bill started screaming.
‘There’s water in the boat!’

What? Mum frantically threw life vests at us as the boat sank beneath our feet. ‘Everything will be okay,’ she said but within 30 seconds we were clinging to the hull in the icy water.

Dad did his best to reassure us but as the sun set, we knew our only chance of survival was to swim to shore. As we started paddling, Dad began to struggle. ‘He needs my help,’ Bill, a very strong swimmer, said as Mum and I went ahead.

As we started paddling, Dad began to struggle.

But as the minutes passed in complete darkness, Mum and I became separated. ‘Just keep going, Susan,’ she called. ‘I’m fine.’ A good swimmer, I made the decision to go and get help for the others. But as I continued battling against the waves and struggling to breathe, I realised I hadn’t heard them in a while.

‘Are you okay, Mum?’ I called. But there was no response. Fear consumed me. I needed to get help fast.

After what felt like hours, I was completely exhausted as I reached mud flats and found myself on an old prison island. Spotting a farmhouse in the distance, I trudged on frantically, collapsing as a shocked couple answered the door. ‘I don’t know where my family are,’ I cried. ‘Please get help.’ A massive search began as I was taken to the police station to wait for news.

I was filled with dread. I should’ve swum faster… I shouldn’t have left them… I should have done better…

The next morning, a local reverend came to give me the devastating news. ‘They found your mum,’ he told me quietly. ‘It’s not good.’ Her body had been found and a few hours later my dad and brother’s bodies were recovered too. In just one night, my life changed forever.

I should’ve swum faster… I shouldn’t have left them… I should have done better…

The next few weeks were a blur as I was taken in by my parents’ friends, but my guilt was relentless. I struggled to sleep, having constant nightmares about our ordeal. Why hadn’t I been able to save them? Why was I the only one to survive?

As our story hit the papers, I vowed to make my parents proud. Messages of support were flooding in from around the country but among them was one terrible letter. Your brother went in aid to help your parents and you left them for dead, it read, before calling me terrible names.

I couldn’t help but think the stranger was right. I felt like a failure. How could I possibly live with myself? Struggling to come to grips with now being an orphan, I was desperate for an escape and soon sought comfort in party drugs and casual sex. Over the next 12 months, things kept getting worse as I lost my grandmother, uncle, cousin and my two kittens. Everyone I loved was gone.

Not caring if I lived or died, I dropped out of school and spent all my time partying until I’d collapse from pure exhaustion. I just wanted to forget the terrible things that had happened. Then at 19, I fell pregnant.

Susan and William, 1994

It was the reality check I needed to shift my focus. My baby needed me. When my little boy was born, I named him after my brother. Holding William in my arms, I felt I had a reason to live again. I started working as an executive assistant and built a good life for us. But I couldn’t shake my past and the guilt I felt. So I had a string of difficult relationships and constantly felt resentment and anger for what had happened.

Then five years ago, I was on a motorbike ride with a group of friends when tragedy struck again. As I rounded a corner just behind my friend Kev, a car veered onto the wrong side of the road.

I couldn’t shake my past and the guilt I felt.

I watched in horror as it ploughed into Kev’s bike and a huge ball of fire erupted in front of me. With no time to react, I drove straight through the inferno. Incredibly I came out on the other side, alive. But Kev was killed instantly.

The accident shocked me to the core and made me realise how precious life is. I’d survived again and knew I needed to keep living for all of those I’d lost. With the support of my son, now 24, I decided to finally tell my story. We sold our house and moved to Bali for a year while I wrote a book about my life.

Reliving those awful times was incredibly hard but for the first time I felt like I could move on. It’ll be 30 years this October since the accident that took my family but I know my parents and brother would be proud of how far I’ve come.

I wake up every day and choose to be happy. William and I are even starting a motorcycle tour company together. Life has plenty of ups and downs but I’m determined to make every day count.

William and Susan in better times.

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