The 1955 flood is burned into the memory of Daniel Lewis who, as an ambulance man, spent nearly two weeks on a Maitland bridge looking after trapped flood victims. ALAN HARDIE took him back there this week.
Daniel Lewis took time out this week to visit Maitland’s High Street road bridge that looms large in his memory at this time of year.
That bridge was his “home” for 14 hectic days during the 1955 floods.
It was also “home” to about 200 other people who were trapped there.
As a 20-year-old volunteer for St John’s Ambulance, it was Mr Lewis’ first major mission.
Now 78, he recalled the devastating impact the flood had on this city and on the lives of so many.
At the time, Mr Lewis had been a St John’s volunteer since he joined as an eager cadet, aged nine.
“I was living in Walls End when the big flood came and we were sent to East Maitland,” he recalled.
“Every available volunteer had been called in.
“We didn’t know it then, but we were all about to experience an event that was momentous – both to us and to everyone affected.
“As a youngster too, I remember how excited I was.
“At East Maitland, we were picked up by an Army DUKW, an amphibious vehicle commonly called a “duck” that could go just about anywhere.”
A tide of swirling water engulfed their vehicle as it slowly made its way towards its objective.
“I had never seen so much water coming so fast into a town and flooding everything, everywhere,” Mr Lewis said.
“There were dozens of dead animals flashing past on the water, together with cars and chunks of houses.
“We didn’t know it then, but we were in the middle of the worst flood in Maitland’s history.”
Crouched in the bobbing “duck,” Mr Lewis then caught sight of his objective: the High Street bridge.
“I was dropped off there by myself – to find 200 people on that bridge who were seeking shelter from the rising water,” he said.
“I thought: ‘Well this is my job. I must look after these people’.”
On the bridge, they were all above the water line, but they watched the water level anxiously.
“A number of cars were stranded there too, together with a double decker bus.
“A lot of people were sleeping on the top deck, so I established my first aid post on the bottom deck.
“Water was still swirling around everywhere and we all kept an eye on the levels.
“At times I watched the torrents tearing down. It seemed as if it would go on forever.”
Mr Lewis said he still had vivid memories of some incidents.
“I will never forget how I was assisted by some people on the bridge to retrieve an elderly men who was very sick,” he said.
“We went in the duck to find the man and bring him back to the High Street bridge where we could give him first aid.”
He also recalled seeing a man who had been trying to stay on the bridge, only to be caught by the current and swept away.
“It was looking pretty bad for him, but he was saved by a surf lifeboat crews,” Mr Lewis said.
The hours, then the days flew past, but Mr Lewis was too busy to notice.
“Luckily, we had no serious injuries – but people were constantly being bitten and stung from numerous insects,” he said.
“There were a lot of mosquitoes around and their bites were a major problem.
“Many people were also being cut, both by objects flashing past on the water and by objects underwater.”
To deal with many people cut off in various places, Mr Lewis had several trips in the Army duck.
“The only time I was scared was being in the duck, travelling from the High Street Bridge when we hit a wire fence,” Mr Lewis said. “The vehicle shuddered and we were shaken by the impact.
“I still don’t know if we broke through the fence or rolled over the top of it, but we got through.”
The Mr Lewis was forced to take a three-day “break” – when he was transported back to Wallsend for a typhoid injection, before going straight back to his “bridge home.”
Throughout our time on the bridge, there was me, a single police officer and the 200 people,” he recalled.
“But we never had any trouble. Everybody was in the same situation and we all tried to help each other as much as we could,” he said.
“One of the worst parts for me was the smell of dead and decaying animals. Even today, I can remember those smells.”
A NSW Ambulance officer for 34 years, Mr Lewis
is again with St John’s Ambulance Service where he started as a volunteer so long ago.
With two children and three grandchildren, he was one of the first paramedics who came to Newcastle in 1974 and he established the ambulance Service in Wee Waugh in 1966, where he also helped in major floods.
“There are still a few of us around who remember those big floods in Maitland,” he said.
“As a youngster, it was a big event in my life.
“I don’t think flooding that destructive could happen here again now because we have taken so many measures to deal with these situations.
“But it was a big event in my life and especially at this time, I will be thinking of all the great people I met who dealt with some really tough times.”
n Elizabeth (Nola) Dickson, of Mount Pleasant Street, aged 55 years. Her house was one of about 20 in the street that were washed away and she grabbed a tree and took shelter in it. Another house, washed off its stumps, dislodged her into the current and her body, clothes torn off by the floodwaters, was found later at Dagworth.
n Francis William Dunn, of Telarah Street, Telarah, aged 33 years. He was swept away by floodwaters in South Maitland while helping remove people’s furniture to safety. This was a common activity during floods and many other people were involved in it.
n Vince Lawrence Hughes, aged 56. He was rescued from the floodwaters by a helicopter near Maitland Railway Station but lost his grip on the grappling rope he was holding and fell onto high-tension electrical wires causing a loud explosion and a flash of blue flame according to an eye-witness report published the the next day. He was electrocuted.
n Aubrey Thomas Smith, aged 35. He was hanging onto Vince Hughes’ legs and fell about 30 metres when the older man lost his grip on the rope. He probably died on impact with the floodwater or was drowned shortly afterwards.
n Archibald M. Maynard, aged 53, was swept away and drowned after being washed off the roof of a building on which he had taken refuge at Aberglasslyn.
n Joseph Michael Gerard O’Brien, aged 42 years. He was one of several men, including Vince Hughes and Aubrey Smith, who had taken refuge in a signal box to the west of the railway station while the floodwaters rushed beneath them. When the signal box collapsed he either jumped or was thrown into the water fully clothed. Unable to swim, he drowned and his body was recovered a week later in Fishery Creek.
n Samuel Upton, aged 73, of Plaistowe Street, Horseshoe Bend. He was drowned in deep water inside his house and his body was discovered in the house by his stepson some days later.
n Eric T. Chard, a signaler with the 1st Air Support Signal Unit, was electrocuted near Maitland Railway Station when the tall high-frequency radio antenna on the army DUKW (duck) he was in came into contact with overhead power lines.
n William McGrath, also a signaler with the 1st Air Support Unit, was electrocuted in the same incident as Eric Chard. The wires were designed to have a clearance of 17 feet (more than five metres) above the level reached by the 1949 flood, but the 1955 event peaked 6 feet 3 inches (nearly two metres) higher at the railway station. Poles tilted by the force of the floodwaters brought the wires closer to the water’s surface than they would otherwise have been.
n Bernard Orrock, aged 24 years and a sergeant with the Sydney Water Police, was electrocuted in the same army duck accident.
n Joseph Bernard Murray, aged 64, a retired mineworker and a resident of High Street, Maitland was one of the many who were staying in cars and trucks parked on the High Street bridge over the railway line. He slipped down a bank into floodwaters three days after the peak of the flood and drowned.
For more on the 1955 flood: