sinking car

Robin Evernden strolled down the concrete jetty and hauled open the ferry gate. It was a task he’d performed hundreds of times already in the six weeks since he’d taken the job as the manager of Molloy Island, a tiny haven of 300 homes at the convergence of the Blackwood and Scott rivers near Augusta in Western Australia. Every hour, on the hour, he’d leave his maintenance duties and ferry cars 145 metres across the river to and from the mainland, the only means of public access to the island.

This crisp August morning, he’d taken a tractor over to do some work on the mainland. It was just before 11.30 and a couple of locals wanted to cross back to the island. Molloy residents may operate the cable ferry themselves on the half hour, provided they have completed a competency test, but today Rob was on hand so he was taking them over himself.

The first car drove onto the ferry and parked at the front, on the downstream side. It was Toni, a friend from the island, and Rob waved at her. He glanced up as a second car approached, a small four-door Hyundai i30 being driven by one of the more elderly islanders. Rob waved him on.

The birds were singing and the glassy river glided by. What a perfect spot to hang out for a couple of years after a full life of travel, adventure and raising three boys, Rob thought as he looked around.

The stillness was broken by the sudden roar of a car’s engine. The car driven by the elderly islander accelerated fast, sped across the entire length of the ferry and snapped the chains on the other side of the ramp before taking out the gate and shooting 15 metres into the Blackwood River.

Rob and Toni watched in shock as the car spun 180 degrees on impact with the water, its bonnet now facing them as they stood on the ferry. The car remained upright, but it was rapidly taking on water and sinking fast.

Rob immediately grabbed his radio and contacted his wife, Ally, who was in the office downstairs from their accommodation on the island. He was calm and cool. “I’ll need the emergency services and a boat,” he told her. “A car’s gone in.”

Ally swung into action, trying to control her breathing as she called emergency services. She knew it would take at least 15 minutes for anyone to arrive from Augusta. But both she and Rob had done extensive health and safety training, and he’d served for years in the Rural Fire Service. He was always logical and calm in an emergency. If anyone could handle this, Rob could, Ally thought.

She rushed to the island jetty and squinted into the distance as her husband threw a life buoy to the elderly driver, who was dazed but conscious, and shouted to him to grab it.

The water was flooding into the car and, in his distress, the driver could not hold on. The windscreen was still above the water and he looked desperately at Rob on the ferry as he frantically tried to close the windows to stop the deluge. The driver, who was in his late 70s and couldn’t swim, appeared terrified.

Rob thought quickly. The car was sinking fast, and he knew he’d have no chance of opening the doors once they were underwater. The only option would be to pull the driver out of the window before the car’s electronics stopped working. “Leave those windows open,” he shouted.

Born and raised in Tunbridge Wells in England, Rob was not a strong swimmer. He liked a dip in the water during the hot summer months, but he preferred to have his feet on the bottom. He quickly assessed the risks. Even though Rob knew he’d be out of his depth by the time he reached the car, it was only a 15-metre swim. If worst came to worst, he thought, I’d still be able to get myself back to the safety of the ferry.

He lunged into the river and gasped as he hit the cold. In a few seconds he was alongside the car. He grabbed the floating vehicle, but it was too buoyant and rolled over towards him, nearly pushing him under. Rob realised that there was no way he’d be able to hold onto the car to stabilise it while he got the driver out. But there was no time to wait for a boat. He would have to bring the ferry itself alongside the car. “Hang in there, mate,” he called out. “I’m going to get you out.”

Rob floundered back towards the ferry, where the driver of the first car, Toni, was on the phone to Ally relaying information. “Grab me a hammer,” Rob called out to Matt, a contractor on the island, who was on the ferry, as he clambered out of the water and rushed to the ferry controls. He pressed the button and the ferry jerked off the jetty and started to make its way along the steel cable in the direction of the car.

Rob took his finger off the button, but it was impossible to control the moving ferry as it lunged into the water. The ferry’s main steel ramp smacked the car before one of the built-in ramps at the stern sheered straight through the roof.

The car was now stable, held in place by the ferry ramp, but it was almost entirely submerged, nose down in the water, the weight of the engine pulling it under. All that was visible was the rear window. The group searched in horror for signs of the driver. There was none.

Rob grabbed the hammer and ran to the ramp, lying down on his stomach alongside the part that had skewered the roof of the car. He still couldn’t see movement. He smashed the rear passenger window and shoved his arm through. “Grab me!” he shouted, unsure if the driver could hear him through the swirling water.

A hand grabbed his arm. The driver had managed to scramble over the seat into the back of the car. Rob wrenched him up and pulled his face above the water so he could suck in air.

But there was no way the driver, a tall, broad man, was going to fit through the window. He was twisted at an angle with only his nose and mouth above the water, and his shoulder was stuck. Rob was going to have to push him back under the water and turn him round.

“Take a big breath,” he told him. “Don’t panic, I’ve got you. Turn around and when I start to pull, give me a push with your legs.”

The driver did exactly as he was told. He took a couple of big breaths and Rob pushed him back into the car, below the water. He twisted him round, then pulled with all his might as the older man pushed upwards. He shot out of the window like a cork out of a bottle and Rob pulled him up onto the ferry.

Toni rushed over and put her arm around the driver, trying to calm him down. He was shaking and agitated, shivering with the cold, and not able at first to speak. But as soon as he could get the words out they realised the reason for his distress. His puppy was still in the car.

By now the car had been under water for a good ten minutes. All that was visible was the rear window. No-one had realised there was a dog in there – surely there could be no hope?

Rob rushed back down the ramp and smashed the rear window with the hammer, feeling through the glass for any sign of life. His heart leapt when his fingers came into contact with fur. Somehow the young retriever, Bella, had found an air pocket up against the window and was alive.

Rob pulled her out, catching her leg on some broken glass, and the terrified animal ran to look for her owner, leaving a trail of blood on the deck. By now a crowd had gathered on both banks, and many hands helped to secure the car with chains.

As soon as the driver had been rescued, Ally had rushed to tell his wife, who had been at home cooking. She’d heard the sirens and felt a knot of dread in her stomach, but they were able to reassure her that her husband was fine. Had she been in the car, the story might have ended very differently.

She accompanied her husband to hospital by ambulance, where he was treated for shock and mild hypothermia, from which he quickly recovered. Toni, meanwhile, took the dog to the vet. Bella had suffered blood loss and shock, but after a few days she, too, was fine.

Since the ten-minute drama, Rob has become something of a hero in the tight-knit Molloy Island community, and has received a commendation for bravery from the Governor-General of Australia for his quick thinking. He and Ally have now left the island and have gone in search of new adventures.

With adult sons living around Australia, family in England and a lust for travel, they don’t know where they will end up. But whatever community they join will be just that little bit safer in the presence of a couple from Tunbridge Wells who showed such calm under pressure.

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