The car sank with my babies inside

Andrea and her family were heading home when disaster struck

Andrea Relf, 41, Munruben, Qld

It all happened in the blink of an eye. One moment, I was driving with my mum and two daughters. The next, we were fighting for our lives.

After spending the afternoon at the shops, storm clouds rolled in as we headed home around 6pm. While my girls, Kaitlin, nine, and Tara-Belle, three, watched videos on my phone in the backseat, I chatted to my mum Lily, 67.

Lowering my speed as rain pelted the windshield and darkness fell, we were only a few minutes from home. The storm must have caused a blackout because my headlights were the only thing lighting the way as we headed down the hill.

Coming around a bend, I suddenly saw a splash of water hit the passenger window. But I had no time to react. The car jerked beneath me and we started spinning uncontrollably.

‘Get out of the car – you’re in the water!’

I let out a terrified scream as we swung 180 degrees and were flung sideways. While I tried to figure out what was going on in the darkness, I suddenly heard a voice outside.

‘Get out of the car,’ a woman yelled. ‘You’re in the water.’

Snapping into action, I put the front windows down but the back windows wouldn’t budge. ‘Get your seatbelts off,’ I screamed. My mind was racing. How had this happened? I hadn’t seen any flooding on the road. Mum was petrified of water and Tara-Belle had only had her first swimming lessons a few weeks earlier.

Flood waters washed my car away.

I had to get them out.

Figuring we must still be on a flooded road, I pushed my door open. I finally managed to wiggle out after struggling against the pressure from the water.

In the dark, I couldn’t see exactly where we were but the roar of water was deafening and I couldn’t touch the ground. Pulling desperately at the back door handle to get to the girls, I found it was locked. I didn’t have time to give it a second yank as I was ripped away from the car like a sheet of paper in the wind.

I tried desperately to swim back towards it, but a raging current was pulling me away. That’s when I realised we weren’t on the road – we were in an overflowing river.

‘No!’ I screamed, watching the car sink with my family inside. Almost everyone I loved would be dead.

I should let myself drown, I thought. How could I go on without my kids? How would I tell my husband David?

Suddenly, I felt a thud as I landed against a tree poking up from the depths. Wrapping my legs around it, I watched helplessly, hoping my family would appear.

Suddenly, Tara-Belle popped up but she was face down and motionless. Reaching out, I pulled her towards me as she started to cough. She was alive. Seconds later, Kaitlin came up gasping for air. She paddled feverishly, trying to swim to me.

‘No!’ I screamed, watching the car sink with my family inside.

Reaching with my spare hand, I caught her. But the pressure from the water was unbearable – I couldn’t hold on much longer.

The next moment, I heard coughing as Mum surfaced on the other side of the river. She screamed for the girls, thinking they were still in the car.

‘Hold on,’ I yelled as she grabbed a thin branch. ‘I’ve got the kids.’ I couldn’t believe they’d survived.

‘Help is on the way,’ the distant voice called. ‘I won’t leave you, just hang on.’ I couldn’t see who the woman was, but I knew she was our guardian angel.

‘Everything will be okay,’ I told the girls, but I was absolutely terrified. As I felt my grip slipping, I noticed a branch sticking up above me.

With my mum, Lily.

‘Let’s get you up there,’ I told Kaitlin, pushing her above the water. I lifted Tara-Belle up by my shoulder, chest-deep in the raging current.

‘Sorry I almost dropped your phone, Mummy,’ I suddenly heard Kaitlin say.

What? I couldn’t believe she’d managed to hold onto my mobile amid all the chaos. Incredibly, it was still working. ‘Try calling Daddy,’ I told her.

Calls wouldn’t connect, but she managed to text the word help to David. As we waited for emergency services, cold water pelted us.

‘I don’t think I can hold on any longer,’ Mum yelled.

‘Don’t you dare let go,’ I screamed back as the water continued to rise. I couldn’t bear the thought of losing her.

Police weren’t able to reach us, but after 60 excruciating minutes, the water rescue team arrived and negotiated the raging torrent towards us. As they edged closer, Kaitlin had only one thing on her mind.

‘Take my grandma first,’ she shouted. ‘She can’t swim.’

I couldn’t bear the thought of losing her.

They followed her orders and dragged Mum to shore before coming back for us. ‘Take my baby sister next,’ Kaitlin said defiantly. I was stunned by her bravery.

Soon after, Kaitlin and I were rescued. David was waiting on the shore in tears and he wrapped his arms around us. We were finally safe. While I was checked by paramedics, I noticed a woman nearby.

‘Are you the voice we heard?’ I asked her.
‘Yes, it was me,’ Kylie said, explaining she’d been taking photos of her flooded property when the drama unfolded. I pulled her into a tight hug. Her voice had been our hope in the darkness.

Taken home that night, I was still stunned we’d survived with only bumps and bruises. But it was only the next day I realised we owed everything to Kaitlin. ‘How did you get out of the car?’ I asked.
‘I held my breath and got Tara-Belle out of her seatbelt and we swam out the window,’ she smiled. ‘But we were being pulled down so I pushed her to the surface first.’

I was amazed. My little girl had saved her baby sister – and us, too. I knew Mum and I would’ve never been able to hold on if the girls hadn’t made it. Returning to the scene the next day, we took flowers to Kylie to thank her for everything she did but I knew nothing could repay her.

Where the car ended up after the flood waters subsided.

Police couldn’t believe we’d survived and were amazed when they heard about Kaitlin’s heroic act. ‘She deserves a bravery award,’ one told me.

So I was thrilled when I discovered that she had been nominated for a Pride of Australia Child of Courage Medal the next week. Kaitlin was surprised by the attention. ‘I was just trying to help my sister,’ she told us.

A month on, we’re still coming to terms with what happened but one thing I know for sure is that Kaitlin saved us all that day. I’m extremely proud of her bravery, selflessness and love for her little sister. She’s a true hero in my eyes.

I was stunned by her bravery.

Kaitlin says:
When Mummy started to shout ‘get out of the car’, I was very scared. I was so glad everyone got out alive and all I could do was keep giving lots of hugs to everyone. I was very happy and surprised to get nominated for an award.

First published in that’s life! Issue 28, 2015. Cover date 16th July, 2015.

Escaping your car

If you’re sinking, take off your seatbelt and open the windows first. Don’t open the door as it will let in more water and is difficult to do against the pressure. You have less than one minute to escape, so don’t waste time making phone calls for help. Try to keep your breathing steady. If the windows don’t open, try breaking them and push older kids out before swimming through with younger ones.

Related stories