Inquest into Dungog Superstorm deaths 2015: Day two

Matthew Finney leaving Newcastle Courthouse on Tuesday. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

Matthew Finney leaving Newcastle Courthouse on Tuesday. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

A man who used floating wheelie bins to save five people when the 2015 superstorm hit Dungog has spoken about his heroic actions.

Matthew Finney was commended in court on Tuesday for his response on the morning of the natural disaster.

A five-day inquest into the deaths of Colin Webb, 79, Robin Reid Macdonald, 68, and Brian Wilson, 72, is being held at Newcastle Courthouse this week. 

The trio died at their homes, within a street of each other, on April 21. 

The court heard on Tuesday that Mr Finney was at his parents' house on Brown Street the morning of the superstorm when a call for help came from beyond the back fence. 

Earlier, Mr Finney “had a gut feeling that something was going to go horribly wrong”, so he had changed into a pair of shorts and running shoes in case he had to enter the floodwater.

By the time Mr Finney reached the barrier of the property, he had to swim.

When he stood on the 1.8 metre-high fence, the water reached his calves.

"The speed the water was coming up was phenomenal," Mr Finney told the court. 

"I could actually feel the water rising up my legs."

He grabbed his parents’ wheelie bin, which he saw floating past, and swam it to the woman who had called for help. 

Colin Webb, Robin Reid Macdonald and Brian Wilson died in the April, 2015, superstorm at Dungog. An inquest into their deaths began at Newcastle Courthouse on August 28.

Colin Webb, Robin Reid Macdonald and Brian Wilson died in the April, 2015, superstorm at Dungog. An inquest into their deaths began at Newcastle Courthouse on August 28.

Mr Finney got her safely back to his parents' house and climbed onto the carport roof, where he could see people in need of assistance further down Brown Street.

“There was another wheelie bin – I thought it was a good idea so I grabbed it on my way,” he said.

Mr Finney told the court that, as he swam down the street, he could see several residents standing on the railings of their patios in order to stay above the floodwater, holding their roof gutters for balance. When he got there, a resident told him Mr Wilson needed help.

“I swam and felt around, pulled something up and it was an elderly man,” Mr Finney said.

“I pulled him up and he appeared to be deceased. I realised I had to make a decision about what to do next – the water was still rising. Given there were four other elderly people [who needed help], I had to make the decision to let Mr Wilson go.”

In total, Mr Finney made six return trips with the wheelie bin, towing people to higher ground, over the course of about 20 minutes. 

Hero: Matthew Finney in April, 2015, two days after he used floating wheelie bins to take five people to safety from floodwater during the superstorm in Dungog. Picture: Janie Barrett

Hero: Matthew Finney in April, 2015, two days after he used floating wheelie bins to take five people to safety from floodwater during the superstorm in Dungog. Picture: Janie Barrett

Mr Finney was visibly shaken as he gave his evidence before Deputy State Coroner Teresa O'Sullivan. 

Ms O'Sullivan said Mr Finney's actions were an example of the "heroic" response of many Dungog residents, which she had commended on the first day of the inquest. 

She said Mr Finney's evidence to the court was "extraordinary". 

Questions over SES training

A small team of Dungog State Emergency Service volunteers confronted with the 2015 superstorm weren’t expecting the deluge they faced, a court has heard.

Leader: SES Dungog unit controller Matthew Too gave evidence at Newcastle Courthouse on Tuesday. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

Leader: SES Dungog unit controller Matthew Too gave evidence at Newcastle Courthouse on Tuesday. Picture: Max Mason-Hubers

Dungog unit controller Matthew Too gave evidence during the second day of an inquest into the deaths of Colin Webb, 79, Robin Reid Macdonald, 68, Brian Wilson, 72, on Tuesday. 

Five Dungog crew members were available for active duty on April 21, in charge of the flood and storm response for the 2251 square-kilometre Dungog Shire. 

The court heard that Mr Too, a volunteer, joined the SES three years before his appointment as unit controller and had spent 18 months as deputy controller. He said he had received no formal training for the job, after the Hunter Region controller at the time Amanda Williamson asked him to take it on.

Mr Too was the only member of the Dungog unit qualified to drive the SES flood rescue boat when the storm hit. But since the superstorm, the court heard, Mr Too had been given training in incident control and multi-agency leadership. Training had also been provided to other Dungog unit members.

During questions from the SES’s legal representative, both Mr Too and his deputy Clayton Shean – who also gave evidence on Tuesday – agreed that some forms of training and support had been provided by the SES before the 2015 storm. Mr Too and Mr Shean told the court they did not realise the storm would be so severe until the morning it took place. 

The inquest continues on Wednesday.

Tuesday, August 29, 1pm

A Dungog man used floating wheelie bins to drag five people to safety on the morning of the 2015 superstorm, an inquest has heard. 

The second of a five day inquest into the deaths of Colin Webb, 79, Robin Reid Macdonald, 68, and Brian Wilson, 72, was held at Newcastle Courthouse on Tuesday. 

The trio died at their homes, within a street of each other, on April 21. 

The court heard on Tuesday that Matthew Finney was at his parents' house on Brown Street the morning of the superstorm when he heard a call for help beyond the back fence. 

By the time he reached the barrier of the property, he was swimming and floodwater reached his calves as he stood on the fence, he said.

"The speed the water was coming up was phenomenal," Mr Finney told the court. 

"I could actually feel the water rising up my legs."

He grabbed a floating wheelie bin and swam it to the woman who had called for help beyond the fence. 

Mr Finney got her safely back to his parents' house before he grabbed another bin and swam to Brown Street, where he found Mr Wilson's body. 

He then swam six return trips with the wheelie bin, towing people to higher ground, over the course of about 20 minutes. 

Mr Finney was visibly shaken as he gave his evidence before Deputy State Coroner Teresa O'Sullivan. 

Ms O'Sullivan said Mr Finney's actions were an example of the "heroic" response of many Dungog residents, which she had commended on the first day of the inquest. 

She said Mr Finney's evidence to the court was "extraordinary". 

Local Dungog branch SES Controller Matthew Too also gave evidence on Tuesday. 

The court heard that Mr Too had joined the SES three years before his appointment as local controller and had spent 18 months as deputy Dungog controller. 

He said he had received no formal training for the controller's job. 

But since the superstorm, the court heard Mr Too had been given training in incident control and multi-agency leadership and training had been provided to Dungog unit members.

Mr Too, a volunteer, will continue to give his evidence on Tuesday afternoon.

The hearing continues. 

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