Three men who swam to rescue a Denhams Beach couple whose car plunged from the Princes Highway into Lake Tabourie have described the scene.
Batemans Bay men Ben Goodwin and Chris Smithers had “no thoughts, just action” on Sunday, June 10.
Shortly after 3pm Mr Goodwin was driving south when he saw a car in front of him hit the guard rail.
“It went dead straight, missed trees, missed poles, went over potholes – it looked like it was guided – and hit a big pile of dirt,” the former lifesaver said.
“If the nose of the car had gone down instead of up the car could have flipped. Water splashed up onto the bridge, and we knew it had gone in. It looked like Dukes of Hazzard.”
He was slumped on the steering wheel with blood running down his face and totally unresponsive.Crash survivor, Cath Spence.
Mr Smithers and his partner Tayla-Ann Wallace, were two cars behind.
“I told my partner to hit the brakes,” the Batemans Bay Surf Life Saving Club call out member said.
“By then I was stripping clothes off and ran to the rail. I couldn’t see how deep it was, so I ran down (to the bank) and swam to the car.”
Northbound passerby, Nic Jones, was also stripping off.
“I was heading home to Sydney from Moruya,” the Manly Surf Life Saving Club member said.
She can't swim.Crash survivor, Alex Spence
“I didn’t see the car, just the splash, but it was so big I thought it could only be one thing, so I hit the brakes and started stripping off.”
The trio went straight to work. They faced a female passenger who was conscious and terrified, and an unconscious male driver, covered in blood. They did not know if he had survived.
Mr Smithers and Mr Jones swam to the front of the car, reassuring passenger Cath Spence, while pushing the car towards the shore, mindful it could sink at any time.
Both men said it was crucial to keep the windows wound down, and the doors closed, to prevent the car from sinking – and leave room to escape if it did.
Meanwhile, Mr Goodwin dragged the car by its towball.
The last thing we wanted was for the car to go down.Rescuer Ben Goodwin
“The key was to get the car to shallower ground so it didn’t go down, and the next thing was to get the passengers out in a safe manner, because you don’t know the extent of the injuries,” Mr Goodwin said.
“The last thing we wanted was for the car to go down.”
Mr Goodwin’s partner Katie Smeaton and Ms Wallace constantly reassured Mrs Spence from the bridge, and other passersby came to help. The couple was brought safely to shore.
Mrs Spence and her husband Alex are overwhelmed with gratitude.
“We were just going home, and somehow we clipped the rail, and then Alex was unconscious and then we flew,” Mrs Spence said.
“When we hit the water I looked across and he was slumped on the steering wheel with blood running down his face and totally unresponsive.
The roads down here are horrendous.Crash survivor's daughter.
“How we are alive, I don’t know, when you see all the obstacles we could have hit.
“We know how lucky we are. Everyone was so lovely.”
Mrs Spence was overcome with emotion when describing their efforts.
“You don’t really ever think anything like this is ever going to happen, but the selflessness of the boys was just … ”
If we were minutes earlier or later, nobody would have seen them.Rescuer Nic Jones
Mr Smithers credited the success of the rescue to surf life saving skills – and plenty of luck.
“It plays in your head a bit, and there was so much positive in the way it happened – it could have been so much worse,” he said.
“The main thing was to make sure water didn’t get in so the car stayed afloat. Little things like the doors being closed really helped.
“It could have been a lot worse.”
Mr Jones agreed.
“If we were minutes earlier or later, nobody would have seen them,” he said.
We just did what we had to do.Rescuer Chris Smithers
The couple still don’t know how the accident happened. They moved to the coast from Scotland a year ago, and were on their way home from a trip to China. Mrs Spence said they left early, because they didn’t think it was safe in the dark.
“I was driving 20 below the limit, and I never attempted to pass anybody,” Mr Spence said.
“I was just driving very careful, because it was wet.”
The couple – and Mrs Spence’s daughter, Claire, want state and federal governments to upgrade the highway, so other families don’t have the same risk.
“The roads down here are horrendous,” Claire said.
Mr Spence is grateful for the support the men offered his wife while he was unconscious.
“I couldn’t be there for Cath, and the boys calmed her down,” Mr Spence said.
“She must have been scared out of her wits. She can’t swim. They’re good, salt of the earth people. The right boys in the right place at the right time.”
He had the highest possible praise: “They’d make good Scotsmen.”
Mr Goodwin and Mr Smithers were quick to downplay their actions.
“If it was the other way around, and we weren’t there, and it was my parents, I hope someone would go in and save them,” Mr Goodwin said.
“We just did what we had to do at the time, and it worked out positive,” Mr Smithers echoed.
The trio encourages everyone to get involved in surf lifesaving.
“It’s a great organisation, and a good life skill to have if you find yourself in a situation like that, to have the skills and the confidence to help someone out,” Mr Jones said.