It certainly doesn’t feel like it. Twenty years is a long time but the landslide at Thredbo, in the Southern Alps of New South Wales, is as fresh in the minds of those who watched it unfold on television as if it were yesterday. This popular ski resort comprises a village with guest houses and lodges built on the slopes of the mountain. It is usually a serene location and in July there are plenty of guests, as it is the middle of winter.
On Wednesday July 30th, 1997, a news flash reported that a landslide had occurred at Thredbo and part of the mountain buried some lodges. The time of the event was at 11.30 pm on that day. Rescue efforts went into full swing but first they had to get there.
As this is hours from Canberra and emergency measures were not available locally to deal with the catastrophe equipment and vehicles plus the SES had to be rounded up and transported. That took a couple of hours or more. The first police arrived at 12.30am to evacuate the area. By 2.30 there were some 100 professional people on hand plus volunteers and the Australian Red Cross.
At first it was not clear how many were in the lodges but people were in bed asleep so chances are they were full. Later it was learned that a leaking water pipe eroded the mountain above where the houses were located. This caused the ground to liquefy and some 1000 tonnes of earth hurtled down the slope.
The first body was recovered at 4.30pm. Reports of hearing people screaming and calling for help during the night and into the next day was distressing, and then they stopped. Slabs of concrete hindered progress and there was water running into the site. Other pollutants such as diesel also flowed into the creek below.
They worked all day Thursday and Friday with some 1,350 rescue crew and 250 on site at any one time. The work was hard and progress slow and many of the rescuers had to be treated for hypothermia. The conditions for any survivor below the rubble was one of extreme cold, wet, and the pressure from the material which made it appear impossible for anyone to survive.
Several bodies were located and pulled out but on August 2nd something was heard when sound equipment was dropped into a hole. It was 5.37 am and Stuart Diver, a ski instructor, yelled back to one of the rescuers. Two pipes then supplied warm air to him and fluid which he was advised to take only 2 sips every twenty minutes.
This rescue was to be a miracle. He was lying in water 2 meters below three concrete slabs. The rescue was hazardous and took the entire day. A tunnel had to be dug some 16 meters beneath the rubble. Some 11 hours after he first called out he was rescued. He was the only survivor and 18 other people, including his wife, Sally, died.
A total of 2 lodges had been destroyed and the State Government paid out some $40 million dollars in out-of-court settlements to victims and businesses. The Alpine Way was a temporary road built by the Hydro Electricity Authority in 1950’s and no one department had responsibility for its maintenance.