Inquest into Dungog Superstorm deaths 2015

Dungog superstorm one in 1000 year event

The storm that claimed the lives of three elderly Dungog residents in 2015 was likely a 1-in-1000-year event, an inquest has heard. 

And NSW State Emergency Service Commissioner Mark Smethurst says the response of the agency could have been better as the natural disaster was unfolding.

Brian Wilson, 72, Robin Reid Macdonald, 68, and Colin Webb, 79, died at their homes – within one street of each other – during the superstorm on April 21.

Deputy State Coroner Teresa O’Sullivan presided over the first of a five-day inquest into their deaths at Newcastle Courthouse on Monday.

“The conduct of a great many residents of Dungog during this terrible event was nothing short of heroic and they should be commended on that,” she said.

Brigadier Smethurst read a short statement at the beginning of proceedings, and said the SES's response on the morning of April 21, 2015, "could have been improved".

He offered “sincere condolences” to the families of Mr Webb, Ms Macdonald and Mr Wilson.

"This was a tragic loss to the Dungog community and the NSW SES remains committed to supporting the township and its dedicated volunteers,” he said. 

“The NSW SES is providing its full support to the Coroner as they undertake this critical investigation. 

“The NSW SES has undertaken its own internal review of operations, and welcomes gaining additional information and insights from the inquest into these events.”

The court heard that the power of the impending storm had not been predicted in the days before it hit.

As a result, the local Dungog SES branch was charged with managing the fallout until the severity of the storm became apparent, on April 21.

The court heard that after the departure of 20-year SES veteran Dawn Studdert in late 2014 – she had been the Dungog branch controller for a decade – there was no formal handover to deputy Clayton Shean, who became interim controller. 

Nor was there a formal handover briefing for Matthew Too, who was named Dungog controller in early 2015. 

The court heard that neither Mr Too or Mr Shean had been trained in the SES’s incident management system, AIIMS, when the superstorm hit.

In her evidence to the inquest on Monday, Ms Studdert said she tried to pass her years of local knowledge on, despite having no formal handover briefing.

She said she believed there was little more that emergency crews could have done in response to the major storm.

“That day there was nothing anyone could [do to] be prepared for what happened,” she said.

In his opening address, Mark Cahill – the counsel assisting the Deputy State Coroner – said the court would hear evidence this week that showed the Bureau of Meteorology’s modelling rated the April 2015 incident as a 1-in-1000-year weather event.

The 2007 Pasha Bulka storm was rated a 1-in-20-year event in Dungog.

Mr Cahill said the superstorm was unprecedented in Dungog's recorded or anecdotal history and was "a major tragedy in the history of NSW".

“In effect what occurred was an entirely unpredicted, localised weather anomaly,” he said.

Details of superstorm deaths emerge

A woman who died when the superstorm hit Dungog in 2015 didn’t heed the pleas of neighbours to get out of her home, because she wouldn’t leave without her dog, an inquest has heard.

Robin Reid Macdonald, 68, was one of three elderly residents who died in the early hours of April 21 when floodwater inundated the small township.

An inquest into the death of Ms Macdonald, Colin Webb, 79, and Brian Wilson, 72, began at Newcastle Courthouse on Monday.

Mark Cahill, the counsel assisting Deputy State Coroner Teresa O’Sullivan, said evidence showed that Ms Macdonald became trapped in the bedroom of her Hooke Street home where she died between 6.30am and 7am.

He said the bedroom door was found closed and water marks on the walls reached 10cm below the ceiling.

Fire and Rescue NSW retained firefighter Daryl Howard told the court that he and three colleagues from Minmi were in Dungog on standby when they got the call to go to Ms Macdonald’s address.

Mr Howard said neighbours told him they had tried to convince Ms Macdonald to vacate the unit earlier in the morning, but she refused to leave without her pet dog and bird.

When one of Mr Howard’s colleagues returned from inside the home with the dog, the neighbours told Mr Howard that, if her pet was still inside, Ms Macdonald would be inside too.

It was then that the call came over Mr Howard’s radio that the 68-year-old’s body had been found.

Mr Cahill said neighbours made "valiant efforts" in their attempts to save Mr Webb and Mr Wilson from rising floodwater. 

NSW Ambulance paramedic Matthew Liebregts told the court he was notified that help was needed at a Brown Street property.

“I went down to the apartment. As I drove in I saw a number of elderly residents. One notified me Mr Webb was partially submerged in the water,” he said.

“As I walked down the footpath, the water was up to my shins and still rising. From there, I saw the deceased floating in the water with a blue blanket over the top of him.”

The court heard that Allan Cherry could hear his friend and neighbour Mr Webb call for help just after 6.30am.

Mr Cherry found Mr Webb, with his head just above the water, on the patio of his unit.

When Mr Webb went under, the court heard, Mr Cherry dived into the floodwater and retrieved him, but he was unresponsive.

Mr Liebregts then received a call to go to Hooke Street – Ms Macdonald’s address – before he went back to a Brown Street home, which had been inaccessible earlier.

“I went out through the front door of the unit where I saw Brian Wilson lying face down on the veranda,” Mr Liebregts told the court.

“You could see the part in the back of his hair consistent with water running away,” he said.

The inquest into the deaths of Ms Macdonald, Mr Webb and Mr Wilson continues on Tuesday.

The hearing is expected to take five days.

MONDAY AUGUST 28, 2PM

The flood that claimed the lives of three elderly Dungog residents in 2015 was likely a 1-in-1000-year event, an inquest has heard. 

And NSW State Emergency Service Commissioner Mark Smethurst has acknowledged the response of his agency could have been better as the natural disaster was unfolding.

Brian Wilson, 72, Robin Reid Macdonald, 68, and Colin Webb, 79, died within one street of each other - at home - during the superstorm on April 21.

Brigadier Smethurst offered families of Mr Webb, Ms Macdonald and Mr Wilson "sincere condolences" when proceedings began at Newcastle Courthouse on Monday morning. 

He said the SES's response on the morning of April 21, 2015, "could have been improved".

"The NSW SES is providing its full support to the coroner as they undertake this critical investigation," he said.

"The NSW SES has undertaken its own internal review of operations, and welcomes gaining additional information and insights from the inquest into these events."

SES representatives are expected to give evidence on Monday afternoon, after the opening address from Mark Cahill - the counsel assisting Deputy State Coroner Teresa O'Sullivan.  

Mr Cahill said the weather event was "entirely unprecedented" in Dungog's recorded or anecdotal history and was "a major tragedy in the history of NSW".

He said neighbours made "valiant efforts" in their attempts to save Colin Webb and Brian Wilson from rising floodwater. 

Mr Cahill said evidence showed that Robin Macdonald became trapped in the bedroom of her Hook Street home between 6.30am and 7am on April 21.

He said water marks on the bedroom walls reached 10cm below the ceiling.

Mr Cahill also said that one Dungog resident told police in 2015 that she woke to ankle-deep water in her home and by the time she walked from her bedroom to her front door, the water was chest-height.

The hearing continues.

MONDAY, AUGUST 28, 9AM

An inquest into the deaths of three people during the 2015 superstorm begins in Newcastle on Monday. 

Brian Wilson, 72, Robin Reid Macdonald, 68, and Colin Webb, 79, died in Dungog during the major weather event on April 21. 

Deputy State Coroner Teresa O'Sullivan will conduct the hearing at Newcastle Courthouse, which is expected to take five days. 

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