A nine-year-old girl escaped from a car just moments before it was submerged in floodwaters in Australia, screaming that her family was still inside and had “gone into the river”.
In an unfolding tragedy that follows a devastating cyclone and flooding across eastern Australia, police divers have launched an operation to try to recover the bodies of the girl’s mother and older brother and younger sister. They are believed to be trapped in a car in the Tweed River, near the town of Tumbulgum in the state of New South Wales.
The car apparently veered off a muddy road and crashed into the river at 1.40pm, local time.
Thomas Grinham, a bystander, said he arrived on the scene soon after the car became submerged and saw “a little girl running along the road”.
We've got roads down, we've got bridges down, we've got families that have lost everything
Annastacia Palaszczuk, Queensland’s premier
“She was screaming that her mum, little sister and older brother had gone into the river in the car,” he told Seven News.
Police said the road was dangerous and had previously been shut because of mud and rubble. Authorities have located the vehicle using sonar equipment but are unlikely to recover any bodies until Tuesday.
“This is a tragic event and we’re very concerned a tragic event will unfold over the evening,” said police assistant commissioner Jeff Loy.
“This is about heeding the warnings of the road closures.”
The incident followed almost a week of torrid weather across eastern Australia which is believed to have killed at least eight people and caused some of the worst flooding in the nation’s history.
Homes, businesses, crops and vehicles have been damaged or lost in a disaster whose cost has been estimated in the billions of dollars.
“This was a one-in-40-year event, if not longer,” said Gladys Berejiklian, the New South Wales premier.
The natural disaster began with a tropical cyclone – named Debbie – which struck the state of Queensland on Tuesday, causing heavy damage to resort islands and coastal towns.
The cyclone then moved south, causing flooding and strong winds in southern Queensland and northern New South Wales.
Across Queensland, almost 600 homes have been deemed uninhabitable, 300 schools were damaged and 22,600 houses were still without power.
“This has had a huge impact right across this state,” said Annastacia Palaszczuk, Queensland’s premier. “We've got roads down, we've got bridges down, we've got families that have lost everything,”
An emergency services worker described rescuing a family from the roof of their house on the Gold Coast before the home was washed away.
"The house breaks free, smashing into another house and then just completely self-destructs on trees all the way down the river," said Chris Holloway, from the state emergency services.
Further flooding is expected in the coastal city of Rockhampton in Queensland on Wednesday or Thursday.
The Insurance Council of Australia said almost 20,000 claims had been made, with an initial loss figure of about £140 million, but the figure is expected to rise.