Monday, February 3, 2014
THE freckled face of 13-year-old Jordan Rice made headlines around the world when he died with his mother in a flash flood that hit Toowoomba three years ago.
Blond-haired Jordan's final selfless act, urging a rescuer to save his little brother Blake before him, touched hearts everywhere, and moved Prince William to fly to Queensland to console his family.
But this is a story of what happens when the cameras go away and a family is left to pick up the pieces. I
It is also a story about the grim undercurrent of suspicion remaining between the survivors and authorities they feel compounded their troubles, in the wake of intense media attention.
It begins with the triple-0 call made by Donna Rice, 43, at 1.50pm on January 10, 2011, as she sat in her stalled Mercedes at a red light in a main street of Toowoomba with floodwaters swirling around her wheels. Jordan and Blake, 11, were in the back seat.
A coronial inquest found the man who answered Donna's call, Senior Constable Jason Wheeler "did not treat her call with the seriousness it warranted and did not treat her with respect". That's putting it mildly.
Wheeler chastised Donna for driving into floodwaters, when in fact the coroner found she had cautiously stopped in shallow water while other cars forged ahead.
But the water rose unusually fast and within minutes engulfed the car, forcing Donna and her boys onto the roof.
When Donna asked Wheeler to call a tow truck, he retorted: "You ring the tow truck company yourself."
He assigned Donna's call a low priority, and no help was dispatched.
Seven minutes later Jordan rang triple-0: "We're nearly drowning, hurry up please."
By then, two passing strangers Warren McErlean and Chris Skehan were risking their lives. Warren, 41, was knocked over twice in the swift-running water.
When Chris reached the car, Warren recalls Jordan and his mother urged him to take Blake.
"After Jordan told the rescuer to take me first, the guy said, 'C'mon little man, it will be OK'," Blake testified.
Chris passed the boy to Warren, who carried him to safety. But by the time he made it back to Donna and Jordan, the water had risen so fast the car was washed away. Chris managed to grab hold of a power pole but Donna and Jordan drowned.
It was a horrendous scene, watched by a screaming Blake.
But what happened next only compounded the grief.
Donna's partner and the father of her four boys, John Tyson, 49, still burns about police allegations that Jordan urged his mother to drive through the floodwaters, a claim later rejected by the coroner.
Police also claimed Donna displayed no urgency when talking to triple-0, and that emergency calls that day were handled "brilliantly".
John alleged in the Queensland's Floods Commission that 17 days after his wife and son died, he was heavied by a police inspector, who told him not to speak to the media about the triple-0 calls.
The officer did not return our calls but at the commission denied threatening John, and tendered the transcript of a recording he made of their conversation on a wristwatch recorder.
The partial transcript and audio, stored in the Queensland State Archives, do not show any threats made.
John says the transcript is incomplete and the officer's secret recording indicates an adversarial approach.
In any case, after the tragedy, John was beset by problems and felt abandoned by his hometown. He lost his plastering business, and took the $145,000 insurance money to the Gold Coast to start afresh with Blake, now 13.
He works as a labourer but struggles to pay the mortgage on his new house, and may have to return to Toowoomba.