Stuart Diver's 64-Hour Visit to Hell on Earth.
Stoic, Resilient...are these the humans fate needs destroy!?Click thumbnail to view full-size
Stuart survived Thredbo, but fate wasn't finished...
I wish I could ask the Almighty some questions about the events in this story. Not that He could come up with any satisfactory answers, I am sure, for the suffering and loss endured by the people involved.
My hub article today started, as many others have, with the purchase of a book in a charity shop. It was actually in the give-away section of Tescos and a box labelled "Diabetes Foundation" stood nearby for any donations. As I have diabetes, I always look here for any interesting decent books donated by the store's customers, and feel good about a pound or so donation.
The cover to this 224 page paperback caught my interest first. It was titled "Survival," with a picture of Stuart Diver, the author and survivor of the Thredbo Landslide Disaster, in 1997, New South Wales, Australia. (with assisting author, journalist Simon Bouda).
Many of you will remember this headline rescue and the great international sadness at all the lives lost. In fact, Stuart Diver was the only victim finally pulled out alive after more than 60 hours trapped in below freezing conditions, in the pitch black, with his dead wife trapped beside him. (Please try to picture that).
The well-written book is mostly concerned with Stuart's horror, hour-by-hour, as hundreds of rescuers try to dig through the unstable porridge of 4,000 tons of mud, running water, rocks, vehicles, and concrete slabs that were left, still ominously on the move, from the slice of mountainside that had careened down into Thredbo buildings, Carinya and Bimbadeen Lodges at over 30 miles per hour.
Stuart and his wife, Sally, ("Sal-Pal") were working in the Thredbo Ski Resort, part of the beautiful Snowy Mountains area of New South Wales, S.W. of Canberra, in Eastern Australia.
The attractive and athletic Divers had a sound marriage for some years, full of adventure and with close family ties on both sides of the union. Fate spares neither the good nor the bad; when its fickle fingers touch the golden young with so much to live for, it seems all the much worse somehow.
Let me say now, this is not a book review and critique. This is something you readers will have to do...buy this book on Ebay or Amazon (or, like me, have a serendipidous charity shop find), and read this journal of a man trapped in disaster, and mired in heart-breaking loss, minute by minute, hour by hour, as his physical state deteriorates into agony and then numbness, and his mental state veers between wishing for death to join his beloved wife, a foot or so away, covered in soil and concrete - to deciding he wanted to live, to "get back at the fates which have treated him so cruelly and unfairly."
This book is a MUST read, I make no excuse for employing this cliche.
I tried to imagine the impossible horror of being trapped in these conditions as I read, page after page, of his ordeal.
Stuart Diver's first awareness of the arrival of part of the overhanging hill was as his ground-floor apartment in Bimbadeen Lodge folded around his sleeping wife and himself, just after nightfall, accompanied by the sounds of the building being crushed in seconds by an overwhelming force; the ferro-cement structure and floors folding on top of the couple.
Sally stood no chance, although only the other side of the bed, she was trapped by a ferro-concrete beam, which had narrowly missed Stuart, the bed-head folded down and trapped her upper body and water cascaded in, effectively drowning her screams and extinguishing her vital life in 30 seconds.
Stuart, caught in the trauma of the moment, could do nothing except put a hand over her face "To try and stop the filthy water getting into her mouth."
As he saw her die so close and yet so far, he "decided to try and save himself from the rising flood of water, diesel and filth" that was about to suffocate him as well.
This freezing flood was to come and go several times as rescuers tried to dam and divert water released from undergound streams, streams that, in fact, had caused much of the instability of the mountain in the first place.
Stuart was trapped in a space that only allowed restricted movement. For a start, he was in pitch darkness, a flooring slab of ferro-concrete had descended to with a few inches of his face and head. His wife was soon lost to him by the sucking water and soil that tipped the bed and buried her to one side of it. Stuart is dressed in a pair of jockey pants and a T-shirt facing nights that would drop to minus 9 degrees Celsius. He does manage to drag a small piece of material torn from the bedding trapped to his left and a life-saving fleece waistcoat that he struggles for hours to get into. "It was soaked and full of mud," Stuart says, "But I remembered it might have the properties of wool which can conserve heat, even when saturated to some degree." In fact, it is Diver's experience as a ski-instructor and habitue of the cold places on the planet which helped his survival, both in his great physical fitness and mental prepairdness. As I read, I knew that this flubby writer would have given up and expired within hours or less.
Ferro-concrete is a useful product. It can carry huge loads; cut building time in half; endure for a century; can be soundproof and easily decorated, among many other attributes.
In an event like a mud slide or an earthquake this tough blend of cement and re-bar can also be a crushing assassin which bars any attempts to rescue those trapped between its sandwich of layers, and the trees, rocks and mud that make a typical lethal admix.
I saw this horrifyingly apparent in Mexico's 1985 earthquake where huge towering apartment blocks had collapsed, floor upon floor, with the humans in their clutches reduced to being as jam in some ghastly sandwich.
After the '97 Thredbo incident, in 9/11 2001, this telescoping collapse was again all too obvious at the World Trade Centre Towers, enveloping thousands of dead and dying in their maw.
Compared to both of the above disasters, Thredbo represented just 18 souls lost and only one saved: Stuart Diver. The publicity the disaster engendered was out of all proportion to its size after body after body greeted the rescuers efforts, the whole world waiting for some success.
It was decided due to lack of visibility and the groans and rumbles still coming from the slide to wait until morning to begin rescue. Meanwhile, emergency helpers of every stripe began arriving from all over Eastern Australia.
The situation was grim indeed as the hundreds of professional and ordinary people began to look and listen for survivors.
The first almost 48 hours seemd to be filled with organizing the huge work force, many in tears and trying to run into the morass to find a friend or relative, to be held back by a chain of NSW police.
Finally, diamond tipped circular saws and earth-moving equipment began to cut gingerly into the concrete floors; move or immobolize rocks and trees; attempt to dam and divert ground water; shut off utilities and all the rest - which you will read about in this absorbing book.
Meanwhile, Stuart Diver was held practically motionless, listening for sounds of rescue he devoutedly believed were at hand.
I am going to stop this hub article here as regards the rescue which you will want to read about in this graphic auto-biography...to cut and chop the details around to fit this small treatise would do the Divers and the book no favours.
I do want to jump here over the agonizing rescue, which had me sobbing like a girl; Stuart's experience with the world press and his immense contribution to charities and encounter groups in the following years.
This is where I might pose my question to an Almighty God, should one have any sway over our vulnerable lives and approaching death.
Stuart did find happiness again, marrying again five years after the disaster, to Thredbo worker, Rosanna (nee Cossettini).
Three weeks after their 2002 wedding, Rosanna was diagnosed with breast cancer. After a long period of remission, Rosanna, too, was taken from Stuart just one year ago, on March 21, 2015.
They managed, against all medical prognostications, to have a daughter in 2011, Alessia.
Stuart Diver, this tough, matey Aussie, says his daughter and his memories are now what keeps him going. Along with his close family and all the friends he has made along the way.
I won't forget this book, and neither will you, I promise.