Panicked 000 call couldn’t save kids
Warning: Distressing content
ON A calm afternoon in April 2015, a tragedy too horrific to comprehend took place in a quiet Melbourne suburb.
Akon Guode, a young refugee from South Sudan had driven four of her seven children into a small lake in Wyndham Vale in the city's south west. The incident killed three of the kids, and injured another. The complex reasons for this desperate act - severe financial stress, shocking birth injuries, possible postnatal depression, and a difficult place within her cultural community - are explored in a new book Accidental Death?
Below is an edited extract, detailing what witnesses saw as they watched the car drive into the lake.
On the afternoon of 8 April 2015, Jenny Miller* got into her car to drive to the shops in Wyndham Vale, a new suburb in Melbourne's southwest, leaving her new baby with her husband, who was home for the day.
It was Jenny's first outing alone in the car since bringing her first baby home about three weeks earlier.
Their house was near a wetland with a lake, and as she rounded the bend beside the lake, she saw something she could barely register.
In adjoining Manor Lakes Boulevard, a car with all the windows up appeared to deliberately mount the kerb, cross a grassy area, and 'just drive full bolt straight into the water'.
Jenny raced home to get her phone and then returned to the lake, dialling triple-0 as she went. An urgent exchange followed.
Jenny: I have just seen a car drive into the wetland off Manor Lakes Boulevard, Wyndham Vale, and it's now sort of floating in the wetlands … There was a driver in the front, but also looks like there are people in the back seat.
Emergency services: So is anyone trapped or injured?
Jenny: No, I saw them deliberately drive in there, looks like that anyway. It has gone pretty deep, actually, and it's stuck. It looks like there was people in the back seat. I couldn't tell kids, or if they were adults.
Emergency services: How far under is the car?
Jenny: It is now up past the front windshield.
Emergency services: OK, and they can't get out?
Jenny: And they are screaming!
Emergency services: How many are in the car?
Jenny: Oh, there is a kid, there is a kid, there is a kid under the water.
Jenny watched in horror, as she described the scene to the emergency operator. She said she could see children in the car and another child floating in the water.
Jenny: Do I get in?
Emergency services: No, no, you need to keep yourself safe, OK, you need to keep yourself safe.
Jenny: They are floating, they are floating in the water. They can't swim. Can I please go get him?
Emergency services: No, you need to keep yourself safe, OK? The police and emergency services have been notified, they'll get there as soon as they can, OK?
Jenny: I can help these kids, I can help these kids, I can help them.
(Crying.) Please let me go.
Emergency services: You just need to take a few deep breaths for me, OK? The police and SES and rescue have been notified and they are going to get them as soon as can. All right? You just need to keep talking to me. What's your name?
Jenny: Please, there is a kid, my name is Jenny, there is a kid trying to get out of the water. He is under the water. Can't see the kid is under the water … He has gone. (Screaming.) There is a kid …
Emergency services: Jenny, Jenny, keep talking to me. Keep yourself safe. The services will be there as soon as they can. OK, Jenny. I want you to keep on the phone with me. Can you see them now?
Jenny: No, the kid has gone under the water. I can't see him anymore.
Emergency services: Is there anybody else there?
Jenny: (crying) There is a man - he is trying to break the window to get the kids out. There is a toddler and something that's just gone under the water. I can't see them. (She yells out.) Guys, there is a kid under the water. There is a kid under the water.
The ambos and the fire brigade is here.
Emergency services: Jenny, you go and talk to the ambos and the fire brigade people, OK.
Jenny: Yes, OK.
Emergency services: But just keep yourself safe.
Jenny: (shouting out to the rescuers) The kid was right here, right where you are standing, just here.
Emergency services: Jenny? Yeah? You go and talk to the services, OK? And they will be able to help you.
Jenny: OK. There is a kid …
Emergency services: Bye, Jenny.
Jenny watched in horror as the driver of the Kluger put her head out of the driver's window and started screaming. The other windows were closed, although somehow a young child had got out of the car and was floating on its back, trying to keep its head above the water. Other neighbours and passers-by stopped.
Several made emergency calls, at first describing a car that was only immersed up to the bottom door seal, then sinking in deeper water, submerged up to the front windscreen, and continuing to move into deeper water.
Kylie Broderick, who lived further from the scene, was alerted by her young son, who'd set off on his bike to visit a friend. He rang her and told her to ring triple-0 and described what he could see, so she could relay the information to the emergency operator. After she made the call, she walked to the spot and watched the drama unfold.
There was nothing she could do.
CFA volunteers, ambulances, and police were all converging, sirens wailing, horns blaring and above the cacophony she could hear the driver's continued wailing, 'not in any language', just loud moaning and wailing. The driver then began to get out through her wound-down window.
Travis Benson and Patrick Whiteley, who were neighbours, were alerted to the situation. A woman came banging on Travis's front door and told him what was going on.
He ran to the lake and out onto a spit of land that seemed to provide the closest safe point to enter the water and reach the car, which had floated to what looked like its final position, all windows still up except the driver's. Travis jumped in and began wading and swimming through the icy water.
As he approached the car, Akon climbed out and stood beside the driver's door, on the side away from Travis, holding the windowsill.
She had stopped wailing. 'Is there anyone in the car?' he yelled as he approached. 'I can't see through the windows! Anyone inside?' Travis said later that Akon 'didn't respond or look at me. She appeared to be looking across the water, away from the car, not panicking, just staring at the water.'
He called out to her again, but she didn't answer. He peered through the darkened window at the row of seats behind the driver and to his horror saw a toddler strapped into his car seat, the water nearly up to his face. Frantically, he tried to break the window with his fist and his elbow, but to no avail. He tried to pull the door open,
but it wouldn't budge.
He turned back to Patrick, who was still on the spit.
'Chuck me a rock, quickly!' he yelled. Patrick looked around quickly, couldn't see any rocks, so he removed his boot and threw it to Travis. 'It's got a steel toe,' he yelled. 'Try that.'
At last Patrick's boot got Travis in through the rear window, but he couldn't undo the seat straps, which were under water. He said later, 'I had my hand over his left shoulder, grabbing hold of his clothing under his chin, trying to hold his head up from behind. I was reaching through the broken window. I saw other kids on the far side of the car and then someone from the CFA pulled one of them out. I yelled, "I need a knife, get me a knife", but none came.'
With all his strength he dragged the limp child from the car seat as Akon peered through her window and watched. Travis cradled Bol in his arms and shook him to try and wake him. He then carried him towards the bank but got stuck in the mud. A CFA member came out to meet him, and Travis handed over the little bundle. The toddler was frothing at the mouth and not breathing.
'I looked back at the car,' he recalled, 'and saw the woman collapsing into the water.' He couldn't reach her in time to stop her going under, but two CFA members got to her. Travis said, 'She was just limp, but not unconscious'.
By the time Akon was brought ashore, three of the children had been found. Ariel had been rescued by a CFA member, who found her floundering around in the shallower water between the car and the shore. After treatment at the lakeside, it appeared she would survive and she was put into an ambulance for observation.
Travis hadn't been so lucky in his frantic effort to rescue Bol. The toddler was transferred to an air ambulance and flown to the Royal Children's Hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival. As the rescue effort continued, Hanger was found under the water between the Kluger and the shore. She was pronounced dead at the scene, despite the paramedics' efforts to revive her. Her body was taken to the Coroner's Court.
Once Akon was safe on the shore, the police stepped in and asked her how many people were in the car. 'Four,' she said. First Constable Hannah Sinnott asked again, and Akon again said four.
She was shivering uncontrollably. The police asked if that meant four including herself or four in addition to herself. She said the four included herself.
Scott Cody, the CFA volunteer who'd pulled Akon from the water, said later, 'I kept hearing the number four, but I wasn't comfortable with the four we had out - I kept thinking, four kids or four people?' He went back out to the car, put his hand through the driver's window and undid the central locking, but there was no other child in the car.
*Jenny's name has been changed.
An edited excerpt from Accidental Death? by Robin Bowles published by Scribe, $35.00