2021 March Floods: Family recalls incredible rescue from flood waters on the Wilson River, Mid North Coast

Positive outcome: Angie, Ryan and Mikaela Priest after her flood rescue on March 20. Photo: Paul Jobber
Positive outcome: Angie, Ryan and Mikaela Priest after her flood rescue on March 20. Photo: Paul Jobber

LESS than 20 centimetres was all that separated Mikaela Priest from being swept into a raging river in the early hours of Saturday morning (March 20).

The 24-year-old had to scramble on top of the caravan she was living in on Hacks Ferry Road near Port Macquarie, on NSW's North Coast, with boyfriend Connor to save her life. Then oyster farmer David Tunstead turned up.

"It was life or death; if I wasn't there within 20 minutes she was gone," Mr Tunstead said.

"I had dropped off a family at Tele Point, came back and by chance I had seen a flashing light on the way up there which wasn't there on the way back.

"So I said to a mate we'd go a bit off the river, gave it a bit of a "cooee" and there she was with about six inches to go."

But it wasn't before Ms Priest had made an unsuccessful 300-metre return swim from the caravan to the back of the family property in search of her own boat.

"By the time I got to our tinnies they were tied up underneath the water because dad thought they couldn't float away so that's when I had to swim back," she said.

"When I got back we were standing on top of the bed for about an hour.

"My legs were really sore and we could start to feel the caravan start to lift up and down with the current and that's when we thought we needed to get on top."

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With the water rising and her phone battery going flat, Ms Priest and her partner had to get out of the caravan.

Their only option was via the manhole as the water had risen to a level which prevented an escape through the door.

"My legs were really sore and we could start to feel the caravan start to lift up and down with the current and that's when we thought we needed to get on top."

Mikaela Priest

"If it tipped over while we were inside we were going to drown so we thought if we got on top of the caravan we had a chance," she said.

"The water was rising slowly but then within the hour it was over my bed. It raised really fast ... too fast."

Dry land: Emergency services plan the rescue. Photo: supplied

Dry land: Emergency services plan the rescue. Photo: supplied

A quick phone call to emergency services was met with devastating news they couldn't be reached as the conditions up river were too dangerous.

They made the heart-wrenching decision to ring family members to say their goodbyes.

"I think we sat on top of the caravan until midnight in the rain and the dark and eventually my phone went flat and then the torch went flat," Ms Priest said.

"We had a horse float next to us which was starting to go under with two dogs in it. We thought we were gone for good."

"We had to go around to get him, but the bunger had come out of the bottom of the tinny so we were sinking at the same time as the captain was overboard."

Mikaela Priest
Coffs Harbour police arrive.

Coffs Harbour police arrive.

When Mr Tunstead arrived, the ordeal was far from over.

"I don't think they meant to go up the river as far as they did because they were looking for another family, but they heard us shouting out for help," she said.

"He somehow got onto the back of my dad's property and that's when my torch died so he couldn't figure out where to go.

"He was calling out 'cooee' and I had to tell him how to get to us before he threw a rope to us and we pulled him over to the caravan."

They then rescued more residents from two houses up the road.

On the trip back to Port Macquarie, Mr Tunstead was thrown off the back of the boat after driving into a low-hanging power line.

"He didn't see it and we went straight into them and he was the last one standing up," Ms Priest said.

"We had to go around to get him, but the bunger had come out of the bottom of the tinny so we were sinking at the same time as the captain was overboard.

"Everything is replaceable, but not lives. I'm real happy I went and saved her."

David Tunstead

"As he went overboard, he lifted the engine up so we've gone faster as he's fallen off the back. We had to turn around, hitting dead cows floating down the river."

The group managed to get to a Marine Rescue vessel which also became stuck on the cables underneath the Settlement Point ferry. They eventually made it back to the Clarence Street wharf and secured the vessel to an excavator.

Mr Tunstead admitted his actions were the Australian thing to do.

"I'd hope someone would help me if I needed it," he said.

"I'm pretty experienced on the boat and have been on the river almost 40 years so I know a bit of it, but I wasn't taking too many risks.

"Everything is replaceable, but not lives. I'm real happy I went and saved her.

"It's pretty rewarding, but you don't do it for accolades. I was just the right person at the right time and it was only because a mate who gave me a call was 500 metres up the road from her.

"I'm just a boy with a boat who likes driving in flood water."

This story Tunny in a tinny saves couple from flood-engulfed caravan first appeared on Port Macquarie News.