Love and courage triumph in battle for child’s life

Love and courage triumph in battle for child’s life

Last Friday the Times documented the rescue of 12-year-old Sam Rosen from the Goobarragandra River in 2012, which resulted in bravery awards being presented just over a week ago to two men, Wagga’s Adam Smith and Old Junee’s Scott Skein. Today we publish the account of the other person at the scene, Sam’s father, Dr David Rosen, a Sydney neurologist.

Dr Rosen wrote the following account the day after the harrowing ordeal, which occurred in January of 2012, just a couple of months before the river’s course would be dramatically changed forever by torrential flooding.

 

The gentle sound of the Goobarragandra River as it passes over the shallow rapids is no more than a constant low-pitched crackle.

From my veranda vantage point the embankment falls away below to the river and beyond the valley unfolds itself into a winding rolling Nolanesque landscape.

Solitary eucalypts prick the horizon. Glowing pregnant belly hilltops picked out by low glancing morning sunrays. Heat hidden by the gentle breeze. Gum tops gently rustle. A blowfly revs into and out of earshot. Birdsong, tweets and warbles and cackles float across the soundscape then mingling with the tumbling water.

It’s mid-summer yet green grass remains visible amongst the familiar yellow bleached parchment of an Australian bush panorama.

Barely 24 hours earlier my son looked up at me pale with fear. Begging me not to let him go. Only his head was above the torrent. Full but bloodless lips, blue eyes, blond curly hair, chin thrust forward. Imploring me not to let him die. Fear, raw, unhidden, and the will to live ebbing and flowing, jousting with one another.

I was holding him very tightly and awkwardly. My left arm reaching up under his right arm, my left hand tightly gripping his armpit, his upper arm cupped in the webspace between thumb and index finger.

My right arm cramped up against my body, between us supporting his chin, holding his mouth just above the water. My hands somehow supporting him, his spine arched back and twisted at an impossible angle as the full force of the river at close rang attempted to cow both of us into submission. His death; my living death both in the balance.

An hour before we had set off from a gentle backwater on the banks of the river.

Recently the water level of the Goobragandra river had dropped and it seemed more manageable for inexperienced river people like Sam and I.

Sam in particular was looking forward to the challenge of paddling down stream in a kayak. Competitive as always this would be another chance to prove superior prowess against his father. I had long given up the unequal competition and on a deeper level had long appreciated that for me the fun was not in the taking apart.

Whether duelling with Playstation hand sets on some godforsaken not too far from the truth imaginary war zone come vision from hell in MW3 or on really true to life virtual soccer fields of the world’s great clubs, Sam was master of his universe.

A universe where killing and being killed is such a blasé experience, so removed from actuality that their gleeful attitude can’t be labelled evil or callous. Avatar populated virtual worlds have become de facto reality for boys where death detached from real sentiments of fear and pain becomes devalued to the point of unreality and non-existence.

The sun is hotter now as I write. I move down the slope to be nearer the riverbank. Birdsong is still there but heat and the onslaught of insects around me is beginning to encroach. Idyllic sentiment makes way for intrusive reality. Memories fresh from yesterday remain raw and unprocessed.

After setting off together we drifted idly down the river. The river was shallow. As we drove to the drop off point I did a mental checklist. We had life jackets.

The river, at times easily seen from the road, was mostly slow moving punctuated by rapids which were very short mostly narrow affairs; brief episodes of boiling even shallower white water to be avoided. (Goobragandra river means white water).

Sam loved all sports; he was fit and plucky, quick-witted and nimble. Sam’s enthusiasm had been known to give way to recklessness. He was intelligent enough to never hang himself with the generous lengths of rope provided to him by parents and step-parents. Usually only his mouth got him into trouble.

Sam the mimic. Sam the word magician. Sometimes tumbling so quickly from his razor sharp mind that it was impossible to keep up with the meanings and connections he made in his mind. Living on acreage near Bathurst his eyes, at risk of damage from hours on PS3, had time to re-adjust to the infinite horizons of bleak high plains NSW.

A keen twenty-two calibre rifle-shot, confident and precocious off road trail bike and motor vehicle driver, a keen observer of wildlife.

He was master of the chooks and geese, tending to them after school and above all a fearless warrior in a virtual world he and his friends populated and talked about in an exclusive vernacular that I could only marvel at.

The water was cold but refreshing as my kayak overturned a second or two after Sam’s had. I saw him go over and under the water and there was nothing I could do to prevent the collision of our two watercraft, not that it would have prevented Sam from capsizing.

The collision slowed me down sufficiently to control my exit from the kayak and turn my immediate attention to Sam. His craft was stuck between two rocks.

He was under water struggling ponderously under the immense weight and momentum of the water which at that point arced up and bore down directly onto Sam’s yellow clad back.

His life jacket useless under the cement-slap weight of the Goobragandra River. My own stability was precarious. Hidden rocks were slippery under foot. I lost my footing, more than once nearly swept away down river, beyond any chance of reaching Sam.

A survival instinct clicked in. I had experienced it on many occasions. Partly medical training, partly personal experiences, partly that’s how I am. A mental trick with time.

Slow things down. Adrenaline fuels time. Hyperawareness and vigilance fuels confusion. Attention is the gateway to consciousness. In all the chaos, in all the fear, the panic, select what’s important. Harness the adrenaline to your own advantage. Use the power it brings.

Sam was still under water. I jammed my back right leg and foot against a secure rock crevice. I had some balance. My arms could reach forward but I seriously underestimated the force of the rapids. Sam remained cowed under the water. I reached for him but couldn’t get his head above the water which flowed over him like cold lava and parted around me one foot wedged in a rock.

My upper body is my weakest feature. Never needing it I used to run sometimes for several hours, I had stamina and strong legs but now my lack of upper body strength was put to a life and death test. I had to let Sam go and get into a better position despite the fact he had been submerged for what seemed like a long time.

This meant me risking being swept away but there was no choice. I quickly readjusted my position so I was nearer and in a more favourable spot to try again to lift his head out of the water.

For some reason Sam was jammed in the kayak and wasn’t coming free. Precious time was ticking.

If he doesn’t inhale then he has maybe two-three minutes before beginning the process of freshwater drowning, a process I am only too familiar with. I had taught him to hold his breath and he was proud that he had (unofficially in the bath at home) held his breath for more than two minutes and 14 seconds, which was the maximum time I could do in the pool.

On the second attempt Sam’s head emerged from the water. Pain and fear registered simultaneously with a special pleading, a belief in his eyes at first, later clearly articulated in words. Dad has to get me out of this. Dad not worthy of anything more than contempt in Sam’s more familiar virtual world, was all that stood between him and nothingness.

At that moment nothing needed to be done. Sam needed to breathe. Time needed to slow. His upper body was pressed up against me, slightly off centre.

His waist was trapped in the kayak. My right hand either supporting his chin an inch or two above the water, or around his back, his neck and back arched back, my left hand supporting him from the side and bracing myself, keeping my own stability.

The constant noise of the water was quite loud.

I looked around. Sam’s kayak was wedged at an angle between two rocks. One end just upsteam against a very large rock, the other tip against a smaller rock which was behind me like a back stop, my right foot jammed somewhere in a rocky river bed crevice my back or hip up against some other part of the rock’s submerged form.

Fearful thoughts began to enter my head. If Sam went under again, especially if I was swept away, he could never recover. And all the future telescoped into a visceral dread knot. An unimaginable death followed by a tormented living death. Our positions precariously clinched together by the force of water.

His chin jammed against my chest meant that when I looked down most of my vision was filled with his face. A face that became more fearful after each attempt to pull him clear out of the kayak.

Each attempt met with shrill shrieking painful cries, agony from his trapped leg. It wasn’t possible to pull him out of this trap. Not even a strong man with a determination to break Sam’s bones could save his life.

I knew for as long as we kept like this and controlled the fear and made time to think and time to make considered choices we could survive. I had been in survival mode before but never had the life of another depended so instantaneously on every move I made, so alone in such unforgiving circumstances. Never had the stakes been so high. Never had “no second chances” been so clearly shoved in my face.

I had to know where his legs were. Several options came to mind.

Moving the kayak full of water was not one of them. Pulling him out directly was also not one of them.

There was no chance of reaching into the water to feel my way down his legs. There was no chance of me pulling off some Mission Impossible Tom Cruise -like underwater rescue.

Sam’s airway protection and my stable position were priorities one and two. 
 Waves of fear overtook Sam now. ‘Don’t let me go. I am going to drown. I am going to die. Daddy I love you. Daddy I love you. Daddy I love …’ Quietly and calmly these last words were spoken. Almost overcome by a meek acceptance of his fate. If he was going to die he was going to say those words with all the dignity he could muster. Then fear returned.

‘Don’t let me go. Please Daddy don’t let me go. I am going to die.’ I’d had enough. I could feel his fear tapping into and sapping my own adrenaline-fuelled reality. Properly channelled it works for you. Otherwise it’s useless. You are not going to die I shouted. I engaged him in a conversation. Where’s your leg? Which one is trapped? Where is the other one?

It turns out the left leg was somehow bent back behind the kayak seat. The right leg was free and out of the craft near my left leg. To escape he must swivel around to face the torrent and perhaps then be dragged out backwards. Surely he could do it? But he couldn’t move against the torrent of water. I tried twisting him to the left and to the right. Each movement met with howls of pain and waves of fear and instability in me. My shorts had come down.

They were ripped off by the current. Perhaps the draw string would be useful? I couldn’t free up the canoe rope – it too was wedged and I wanted something to tie us together. The shorts disappeared after an attempt to pull them up. All active options seemed spent.

The only hope now was to maintain my position and Sam’s airway and look up towards the road where a 10m gap in the foliage would give about one second of time for any occupants of a passing car to see us. I watched for a while. No longer looking down at Sam. Holding him steady. Gazing hard at that gap.

Amazingly a car passed and I lifted an arm to wave and we both wavered in the swirling waters. The car slowed imperceptibly and disappeared. As if perhaps the driver had glimpsed something he couldn’t quite believe. Attention momentarily switched from the task at hand, a conversation or a daydream. Or did he simply slow down for a bend in the road or at that moment was he fiddling with his phone unaware of anything else? How fickle one’s attention can be.

Sam implored me to tell him the car had stopped. Yes they saw us I said – hardly really believing my self but uncertainty was Sam’s and my worst enemy now. He was shivering, in pain the leg was numb, I had visions of a broken limb.

Worse still he told me he was having trouble breathing.

Writing this evokes such strong memories in me that it is possible only to record my thoughts in short bursts. The river is still close by. Nothing has changed, but another day, another morning, recollections undimmed by the passage of time. Not long before the arrival of hope there had been moments when the task seemed too much, the options too limited, despair somehow jammed its foot in the door.

I knew I was fighting for Sam’s life, not for one moment did that thought leave me. As I looked up at the road I knew the only option was to wait and keep Sam’s head above the water and not get tired and to keep focussed on the thought that the road 100 metres away to the left and above us, would bring something some human salvation.

Wrenching him free, twisting, turning, agitating alone against this force would eventually sap whatever strength remained.

Waiting on the other hand, conserving energy, finding something positive to occupy my thoughts to paper up the cracks of despair was the only option. Sam provided it. His words of love to me were more heartfelt and unselfconscious than anything I had ever heard from my son. Each time he told me he loved me he gave me strength.

I don’t know what he really saw in my eyes as he looked up at me. That question is for another day. But there was no other place for him to look. My face filled his world then. Perhaps he was thinking it was the last thing he would see. He couldn’t move.

Any shift in his position and his head would quickly be snatched down below the surface. He had time, adrenaline fuelled time to study my face. What was written on it was plain to see. Each thought, fear, hope, despair, everything down into the infinite futures was written on my face. The normal mask of social communication stripped away to reveal every conscious and unconscious thought. My face had become an emotional tickertape.

Sam could do nothing physical to help me. Fearful, bound down and trussed up by watery tentacles his lower body imprisoned by the kayak.

He was forced to study every blink, every intonation of my voice and every flick of muscle. Intuitively he said the only thing that could interrupt the seesaw he saw of hope and despair. Love brings hope. What ever happened he had given me his greatest gift. It shone through and he repeated those words over and over, to make it stick, as if each time it was the last time he would say them.

A balm for whatever memory we carried forward from that moment. I too told him. I love you Sam. They didn’t stick in me, the words that emerged were clear and strong. And I told him I wouldn’t let him go. He wasn’t going to die.

Then they appeared. I told him. We both knew it was far from over…

Two forms appeared on the river bank, above and to the northwest, up river. Bright blue and milky coffee coloured shirts covering unmistakably bulky blokey torsos against an impossibly cobalt sky.

At first they were tentative in their moves towards us. Acting as if in disbelief that there was any problem. Only later did I appreciate that from their perspective Sam was invisible and so was his kayak. Mine was long gone, swept away in the first few frantic moments.

A solitary adult figure in the middle of the shallow rapids, chest well above water was hardly an emergency.

Now was the time to shout. Loudly. Now was the time to wave the arms. A universal distress signal.

“Help! We need your help. Help! Help! Help!” Left arm waving but not for long. They glanced at one another and I could tell they were on their way down.

But I was struggling again to maintain our position. My balance had shifted with the effort of attracting their attention. The weight of the water began to get the upper hand. And renewed uncertainty crept in. Sam’s position was still such that if I let go he would drown, as there was no hope for him to keep his head above the raging water or of escaping the kayak into which he seemed impossibly pressed.

Once again I carefully and minutely repositioned my feet into the submerged rocky crevices below. Once again I carefully and minutely repositioned my left arm and torso to offer maximum support for Sam and provide maximum grip and support for me.

Strangely I can’t completely recall, even now, with the benefit of calm hindsight, just how or what propped me up against the current. Why my body didn’t yield like a reed stalk in the current. Something in the way Sam and I were embraced together made us stronger than any one of us alone. The very trap of the kayak was a fulcrum of tension for us both. Hence his pain, the loss of feeling in his leg where the circulation was cut by the rim of the Kayak and his muscles were compressed and beginning to cramp. He didn’t complain once.

We were stable again. I turned my attention to the approaching men. I was conscious of the need to take control, to be proactive. For the first time it was possible to explore other options. To be most effective these men would need to be clearly and decisively guided to where we were in the centre of the river and to quickly find the best position from which to assist.

They had no ropes and I could see by the way they moved they were not experienced in this kind of activity. Who would be? 
At this point the river was about 30m across.

The men naturally took the most direct route through the water towards us. From their still and relatively deep upstream point of entry they were wading and clambering over rocks in a direct line towards us. I could see their path would lead to a high chance of them being swept past us in the current and over the rocks of the rapids which trapped Sam and I.

At best it would waste time at worst they would be injured. They had to approach us from the opposite bank where the water was still again and a miniature archipelago of outcroppings would let them get to us without being swept away. Blue shirt got it and I concentrated on guiding him towards the large upstream rock on which the back tip of Sam’s Kayak was jammed.

I could see in the lee of the current, between the rock and the kayak a quiet eddy pool where he would fit, his back up against the rock providing him with enough leverage and stability to move the Kayak either with his feet from a crouch or with his arms or even develop a rocking motion with his body.

Coffee shirt, younger than his mate and perhaps less inclined to take directions came down the centre of the river. He struggled to position himself downstream but brute strength and determination to help spurred on by the knowledge of a young life at stake kept him true. After about 15 minutes they were both in position.

The view from the road of the Goobarragandra River where Sam Rosen had become trapped in a capsized kayak.
The view from the road of the Goobarragandra River where Sam Rosen had become trapped in a capsized kayak.

The next phase was to get Sam free without losing our advantage. I knew in minute detail what could and should not be done. I didn’t want them to upset our balance with any hasty enthusiasm.

I had to stay clamped to Sam so that he could stay above water. I couldn’t help with any effort to dislodge the craft. They had to do that and no mater what I would stick to Sam. Their initial efforts gave way to surprise at the difficulty of the task. The kayak, full of water, may have weighed close to half a tonne. But these were big men, over 100kg each, and once they had the measure of the task our delicate preparations gave way to brute force.

As they rocked in unison the kayak budged. It rocked with them and Sam and I clung together. Our eyes locked. My arms around him, pressed hard against my chest. When it came free everything happened too quick for any real recollection. One instant we’re clinging, Sam trapped, the next he was perched on the top of the kayak.

Blue shirt was now also gripping Sam who was shaking and trembling with fear and relief. Coffee shirt was standing silently in great pain hunched over his left knee, dislocated, trying to maintain stability in the rocky rapids.

All attention was on Sam. His life jacket had long gone in my attempts to grab him earlier. (It had ended up a hundred metres down stream and was one of the factors that convinced the men to stop after they saw me waving.) A quick survey. Sam was not badly injured. Nothing bleeding or broken.

Carefully I made my way to the far bank and using the kayak rope to prevent him being washed away Sam was handed across to me and we reached the safety of the opposite bank. Together Sam and I sat down and watched the two men make their way towards us. Sam instinctively grabbed my hat and placed it between my legs.

We introduced ourselves. Scott, blue shirt and Adam coffee shirt. My voice trembled as I told them they saved my son’s life. And I thanked them. Their humility, true Australian country spirit, touched Sam and I both as they dismissed their heroic efforts, the interruption to the day’s pleasures after a morning fishing upstream was merely a passing moment in their day.

Adam was still in pain. Mid river he had put back his knee. But it was swollen and grazed slightly. He refused my offers of help.

We climbed up the rough path. Three men, one bare from the waist down, and a trembling shaking child of 12, all of us bedraggled and approaching slowly up the road was a family on bicycles.

We were a spectacle to behold.

It was best to get in the car and avoid any explanations. They were looking towards the river. They had seen Sam’s bright yellow life jacket on the opposite bank. A forlorn site which conjures all sorts of thoughts in their minds. And my kayak, also in plain view stuck on a rock in the middle of the river (Sam’s was secured soon after we reached the other bank.) An abandoned life jacket and kayak, surely there’s a story there?

Yes, one of hope and despair and love and the random courage of complete strangers who risked limb and life to offer a helping hand to those who needed it. Sam had survived. We had survived. We had fought for a life. I was happier than I had been for a long time.

Dr David Rosen and his son Sam in a photo taken at Goobarragandra, the day before Sam’s kayak capsized.
Dr David Rosen and his son Sam in a photo taken at Goobarragandra, the day before Sam’s kayak capsized.

Bravery recognised more than three years later

The Royal Humane Society awards recognize the bravery and self-sacrifice of those members of the community who have responded to help people whose lives were in immediate danger.

On Friday, June 26, Adam Smith and Scott Skein were awarded bronze medals by the Governor General, David Hurley.

Speaking to the Times last week, Mr Smith and Mr Skein said they were humbled and honoured by the presentation of the medal, but insisted they were not heroes; that anyone would have done as they had; and that, given the opportunity, they would do it again without hesitation.

Adam Smith and Scott Skein sharing a beer and proudly wearing their bronze medals following a ceremony at NSW Government House.
Adam Smith and Scott Skein sharing a beer and proudly wearing their bronze medals following a ceremony at NSW Government House.

The award citation read as follows:

The bronze medal is awarded to Adam Smith and Scott Skein for their actions in the rescue of a 12 year old boy from an overturned kayak about five kilometres upstream from “Coolamondah”, Goobarrangandra on January 21, 2012.

At approximately midday master Sam Rosen became trapped in a capsized kayak in rapids at an isolated spot in the middle of a 25 metre wide river.

To prevent his son from drowning his father Dr David Rosen braced himself against a rock in the current and elevated his son’s head to support it above the running water.

The rapids were about 75 metres away from the road and partially hidden by vegetation.

After about 30 minutes Mr Adam Smith and Mr Scott Skein drove by and from their car observed the predicament.

Without hesitation they clambered down the steep riverbank and entered the water in their street clothes. Without life jackets and at risk of being knocked over and injured or drowned by the strong current and rocks, Mr Smith, who dislocated his knee during the rescue and Mr Skein dislodged the kayak stuck between two large rocks and managed to free Master Rosen.