One year on: Why I made a film about our tinnie heroes

ABOVE: Cassie Gadsby’s family stranded on the roof of their home during the floods near Woodburn. Brent Symonds rescued them from the roof. Photo: Cassie Gadsby

Susanna Freymark

Thunder cracks its threat across the range. On the one day I didn’t want rain, here it comes.

The sound of rain on the roof will be another reminder of this day a year ago – February 28, 2022. On that day a huge low sat above the Northern Rivers. I watched it obsessively on the BoM. It didn’t budge – it was staying put.

On the evening of February 28, messages filled my Facebook feed. Terrible messages from people in Lismore on roofs, unable to escape rising floodwaters. So many cries for help.

By nightfall, towns and villages south of Lismore were flooding. In Coraki, people sat on roofs waiting to be rescued. One woman told me she ate the dry oats from a porridge sachet as she waited for two days to be rescued.

As the disaster unfolded, stories of courage came through. Men and women in boats and on kayaks motored and paddled to homes and rescued friends, neighbours and strangers.

It was chaos. There were mixed messages from the authorities to stay out of the water yet the cries for help continued. Most rescuers ignored the warnings of danger and kept going.

Days after the flood, Robert May, 84, from Woodburn posted on Facebook that he was looking for the two blokes who rescued him just before dawn on March 1. He didn’t know their names or anything about them.

In the darkness of the surging Richmond River, Derek Stratton and Marcus Smith rescued 40 people that night. Robert was the last person they saved.

I published Robert’s story.

Then did a follow-up when we found Derek and Marcus.

Derek Stratton and Marcus Smith rescued people in their tinnie My Alibi. Photo: Susanna Freymark

There were so many people who were rescued in the first days of the flood. And there were days and days more of ferrying supplies and medicines to people stranded in their homes.

I met more tinnie rescuers. They all said they did what anyone would do.

But that is not true.

It takes courage to take a tiny boat across the vastness of floodwaters to rescue people who are distressed, who wanted to bring their dogs and cats into the boat.

I work in words. I tell stories. Yet here for the first time, words were not enough.

As the emergency turned into flood recovery, I searched for meaning in the stories I was hearing.

I saw the distress in people’s eyes. In their voices, thinly held together as they told their flood story. Many wept when they showed me photos of the roof of their home peeking out of the floodwaters, or their children sitting on the roof surrounded by a lake of muddy water.

The flood tragedy continued to play out in the repair of homes, in the difficulty of getting back to normal – what did that even mean any more?

There was the clean-up, the filling in of forms for grants, the decisions about staying or going.

Small things became amplified and difficult to do. That’s what loss does. Here were entire communities such as Woodburn, Broadwater, Coraki, Bungawalbin, Wardell and many others grieving.

I watched on. I wrote stories and took photos of the disaster.

I heard more stories of the people in boats and what they did.

The more I heard, the more I wanted to tell the story in a visceral way.

I decided to make a film. This was something I had never done but I was driven by the rescue stories.

I don’t hold back from calling the film Tinnie Heroes. The people featured in it do not in any way think they are heroes.

But their actions are heroic.

Their actions saved lives.

And I wanted that remembered, immortalised. And the best way I could think of doing that was in a film.

I applied for a grant, found a co-director in Jimmy Malecki and began to work out a way to tell this story of courage.

Tinnie Heroes is billed as “a short film that’s big on bravery”.

And I see the towns that flooded in Richmond Valley as being big on bravery.

Tomorrow night is the official launch at Woodburn Hall.

I’m nervous.

This is who I made the film about.

This is who I made the film for.

I hope I have done right by them.

I was always sensitive to their reaction yet this will be a bold and difficult story for some of them to watch.

When the film screened at Flickerfest in the Byron All Shorts comp, people laughed and cried watching it.

And that is a good thing.

I like that people will come together to see this little film.

The sorrow of the floods and the damage it caused will take a long time to heal and the healing and moving on will be different for every person.

I see Tinnie Heroes as a part of the flood story that needs to be told.

Woodburn and other places can be proud of these people who stepped up and into their boats.

And of course, beyond the tinnie heroes are dozens of other people who did so much – feeding people, caring for them, helping with livestock and pets, finding accommodation and more.

Every community needs a hero. Woodburn has them in spades.

You may not be up for seeing Tinnie Heroes, and that’s fine too. Do what you need to on this first anniversary of the flood that changed our lives.

And if you are one of those men and women who saved others – I know many want to stay anonymous – if you are one of them, I thank you.

We all thank you.

Here’s where you can see Tinnie heroes.

Watch the trailer below.

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