Sunday will mark 10 years since the tragic drowning deaths of Shane O’Neill and his two young sons at Tathra Wharf.
A decade will have passed but for those family members and friends left behind the grief and pain remains.
Lives were cut short around 7.30pm on November 18, 2008, in what was a horrendous series of events.
It was getting dark and the sea that night was running a 2-3-metre swell when both young children, aged 4 and 15 months, fell into the sea.
Shane jumped from the wharf into the water in an attempt to rescue his young boys.
What was going through Shane’s mind as he did this can only be imagined – to try to rescue one of his sons in the conditions that night was going to be incredibly difficult, but to rescue two was a near impossibility.
Others on the wharf that night did what they could to help. One brave man risked his life by getting into the water, others tried to tether flotation aids to help those in the water, still others raced to alert the emergency services.
Everyone including the surf lifesavers, the police and ambulance officers, doctors and nurses did everything humanly possible to carry out a rescue and save lives. For those people images and feelings from that night will remain a part of their lives.
It was the most awful of accidents. The loss shocked and saddened the communities in the Bega Valley. It was national news and people everywhere were affected by the tragedy. There is nothing sadder than a tragedy that claims the lives of little children.
Three years ago, I was on the remote Great Barrier Island off the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island and in conversation with a local I said I came from a small town called Tathra. They replied “that’s where those little boys fell off the wharf and drowned”. This was seven years after the tragic night. Such was the wider impact of what was reported.
However, nothing compares to the ongoing loss felt by the family and closer friends of Shane and his sons. Since the tragedy there has been a quiet gathering at the wharf on November 18 each year to remember, honour and mourn Shane and the boys.
Terrible accidents do happen, but most accidents including this one, are largely preventable. Admittedly that is easy to say in hindsight.
The Bega Valley Shire Council is responsible for public safety at the wharf site and has implemented changes aimed at reducing the risks. Still some family members are not satisfied that council has done everything possible to prevent another accident.
Council has tried to straddle two separate issues – the iconic nature of the wharf and its potential to draw tourists; and how to ensure public safety. These should not be in conflict.
A review conducted of the first 2010 risk assessment several years ago resulted in a council decision to close the fishing platform to the public during heavy, dangerous seas. Unfortunately, this decision was poorly implemented and proved to be unpopular and ineffective.
The improvements that remain include an emergency phone, signage, putting a life buoy on the wharf, providing two additional extraction ladders, and additional night lighting.
Linda O’Neill, Shane’s mother, is pleased that council has made these improvements but feels it is closed to the idea of doing more to prevent people or children falling from the fishing platform in the first place.
Since around 2015, Linda has had as many as four people tell her of near misses that have occurred over the years at the wharf. In each incident, someone has either slipped or tripped and fallen suddenly into the sea.
These were near misses, dangerous incidents that fortunately did not end badly and could have gone unreported.
This year when family and friends meet to remember the trio, the fishing platform will look just as it did in 2008. For in reality little has changed.
They can walk to the exact point on the kick board where the stroller toppled into the sea; they can look down at the water a few metres below just as Shane had in 2008.
Their pain is layered and it’s hard to imagine its depth and rawness against the backdrop of a fishing platform where today there is nothing to prevent the same accident happening again.
There have been some welcome changes, but reliance on rescue carries no guarantee.