Whenever former Sydney firefighter Stephen Hirst recalls 1997’s Thredbo disaster, one thing always springs to mind. “When he answered back,” he tells WHO of discovering the tragedy’s sole survivor, Stuart Diver, trapped beneath tonnes of rubble in the dim predawn of Aug. 2.
“I said, ‘Can anyone hear me?’ And he came back with ‘Yes, I can hear you.’ It wasn’t a huge boom of voice. It was very quiet, but it was there.”
It was the sound of hope within an unprecedented horror.
Twenty years ago on July 30, a landslide struck the NSW Snowy Mountains town just before midnight, killing 18 people, including Diver’s wife, Sally (Diver suffered further tragedy in 2015 when his second wife, Rosanna, died after a long battle with breast cancer).
Two buildings were reduced to rubble in the tragedy when Carinya Lodge was sheared from its foundations and slammed into Bimbadeen Ski Lodge below, where most of the victims were either asleep or preparing for bed.
It remains the biggest disaster Hirst, now a NSW Fire and Rescue Zone Commander, has ever encountered. “The size of it was massive,” says the 51-year-old. “As a firefighter, we like making bad things right and we were all champing at the bit to get in.”
From the afternoon of July 31, the crew began discovering bodies.
“I’d never been exposed to that, to deceased persons on that scale,” says Hirst.
On Aug. 2, Hirst was searching in a particular area with fellow firefighter, Geoff Courtney, when something made him stop.
"I said to Geoff, ‘Mate, I’ve heard something,’" recalls Hirst. "And he goes, ‘Oh, you’ve got rocks in your head.’ I said, ‘No, something’s not right.’ And he goes, ‘Right, go with it mate, follow it.’
“I still cannot recall for the life of me what it was that caught my ear. I don’t know if it was a tap, a voice or whatever. Geoff started yelling out for everyone to be quiet and then when it all shut down, I yelled into the concrete mass: ‘Rescue party working overhead, can anyone hear me?’ And a voice came back, ‘Yes, I can hear you.’
“It lifted everyone. And then I went through the process of, 'What’s your name?' ... 'Stuart Diver.' When I asked him was anyone with him, he said his wife had passed away. I said to him, 'Righto, mate, hang tight. We’re coming to get you.'”
For more, including other rescuers' recollections of the disaster, pick up a copy of WHO, on sale now.