ABOVE: Derek Stratton and Marcus Smith with the tinnie they used to rescue 40 people from floodwaters in Woodburn. Photos and video: Susanna Freymark
Two blokes in a tinnie rescued 40 people who were trapped in their houses as floodwaters rose at rapid speeds in Woodburn.
Their story of courage in the darkness of Tuesday morning on March 1 isn’t the only one.
Hundreds of people used boats to save people trapped in their homes across the Northern Rivers as treacherous floods no one could have imagined left people stranded with no way to escape.
There were so many calls to the SES and Triple Zero that the system was overloaded.
Derek Stratton is a fire fighter from Port Macquarie. He was visiting his parents in Uralba St at Woodburn.
Next door, his sister Kim Stratton and her partner Marcus Smith were busy moving everything from the ground floor of their home to the first floor. It was Monday, February 28.
Woodburn residents had seen what had happened upstream at Lismore. The floodwater was headed their way. Richmond River was breaking its banks and pounding towards them.
Everyone expected the floods to be as bad as 2017, maybe a bit worse but they were prepared. They were used to dealing with floods.
“We were holding strong and thought the water wouldn’t go higher,” Marcus said.
In the early hours of Tuesday morning, it was clear this flood was like no other. Water was pouring into the first floor of Kim and Marcus’s raised home.
It was too late to leave. They, like other residents in Woodburn were trapped by fast flowing floodwaters.
Derek was standing on the balcony of his parents’ house.
“We saw a pop-up camper flowing down the road,” Derek said.
Derek’s father said, “I don’t want to go,” but they had no choice by then, Derek said.
Marcus had tied up his tinnie My Alibi by the house as their final escape plan. It’s lucky he did.
Derek and Marcus took their families by boat to Woodburn Public School on higher ground.
“It was pitch black and pouring rain. People were waving torches and shouting for help,” Derek said.
Once their families and dogs were safe at the school, the two men went to house after house rescuing people, dogs and cats.
“All I could think about was that I hope the motor (on the boat) hold ups,” Derek said.
“I was shit scared the torch would run out too.”
They could see the light from the torches people were waving in their calls for help.
“The water was ripping,” Marcus said.
There were fridges, freezers, mattresses and fences in the water.
They could see spiders climbing the walls of houses.
“There were lizards everywhere,” he said.
From 2am until 7am they rescued 40 people from their homes.
The tinnie the men used to go fishing is only meant to hold four adults,
“We had four adults, two kids and four pugs in the boat,” Marcus said.
The first couple they picked up had a cat in a cage.
As they were driving back to the school and to safety, the cage with the cat in it fell into the water.
They couldn’t turn back. The floodwaters were too fierce.
The couple burst into tears, Marcus said.
It was a difficult start to their rescue mission.
All night they ferried people to the school.
They were told 86-year-old Robert May needed to be rescued but they couldn’t find his house.
Just before dawn they were at a house where a couple thought it was the end.
Derek knocked loudly on their door.
The couple had thought no one was coming and they were going to die.
“They had got on the piss, cranked up the music and said goodbye.” Derek said.
Then the tinnie arrived. The couple knew where Robert lived.
After dropping the couple at the school, the men headed to Robert’s house.
“By the time we got to his place the water was at chest level,” Derek said.
Robert yelled out.
The doors had swelled from the water and we had to kick it in, Derek said.
Robert May had been waiting all night to be rescued. He thought he was going to die in the floodwaters.
When they found him, Derek said: “We’ve been looking for you all night.”
He was the last person Derek and Marcus rescued that night.
Derek said they were able to do what they did because they were in ‘survival mode’.
“It was like Dunkirk,” he said of all the boats out on the water rescuing people.
The cat that fell overboard was found eight days later.
In the next days, Derek and Marcus continued doing food drops from their tinnie.
At the school there were hundreds of people and hundreds of dogs, Kim said.
For eight days the school became their island. As floodwater receded they went back to the houses to get tinned food for those stranded at the school.
During those days, a motorboat turned up.
“A tanned fella from the Gold Coast was driving it,” Derek said.
“The Gold Coast is behind you,” the man yelled from the boat.
He dropped off food, fuel and made return trips.
Three weeks on, the clean-up continues.
Marcus is keen to start work again at Hansons Concrete in Woodburn.
Kim said she still has nightmares.
“All of them involve rain,” she said.
Derek said his priority was to get his parents “back to normal” before he heads south.
The men laugh about some of the things that happened that night. They lean on the trusted tinnie My Alibi and play with the dogs.
They don’t see themselves as heroes. But the people and the dogs and cats the rescued certainly do.
“We did what anyone would do,” Marcus said.