Cars, houses, rural Queensland, the scars may never heal

Of all the unspeakable things Martin Warburton witnessed from the roof of his petrol station in the Queensland hamlet of Grantham, one stands out: a house hurtling past, borne by raging floodwaters, with people inside it screaming for help.

Now the house, a crumpled mess, sits in a paddock about a mile from the site where it was ripped from its foundations – a symbol of the horrors visited on Grantham and a clutch of neighbouring townships when a wall of water roared through last Monday.

While most of the attention this week was focused on Brisbane as the river there peaked at its highest level for nearly 40 years, 60 miles to the west, in the fertile Lockyer Valley, a freak storm triggered flash floods that virtually wiped several small farming towns off the map.

A close-knit community of a few hundred people, Grantham is now a wasted landscape of rubble and mud. The place looks as if someone has rampaged through with a giant wrecking ball. The Queensland Premier, Anna Bligh, who paid her first visit to the town yesterday, described it as the "absolute epicentre" of the floods – the ground zero of the state's worst natural disaster.

At least seven people died in the town when the muddy, swirling torrent – likened by some to an inland tsunami – raced through. Officially, another 12 are still missing, but many locals consider that an under-estimate. "I know more than 20 who lost their lives down there," said Lesley Johnson, gesturing towards a railway bridge where dozens of cars ended up wedged after being tossed around like bath toys.

The floods rose to waist deep within a couple of minutes, according to Mr Warburton, who soon found himself treading water. Hauling himself on to the top of his building, he saw cars sweep by with people on the roofs. "Then the car would just disappear under the water... that's the hardest thing to come to terms with: you're so close to someone, you can see the fear on their faces, but you can't help them."

Speaking at a relief centre set up at a local primary school, Mr Warburton said he also saw numerous dead bodies float past. At first he thought they were people struggling to swim, then he realised the turbulent water was agitating their limbs. A little later, he saw the house and heard the desperate cries from inside. "Kids were screaming 'help me', 'save me'," he recalled, his voice cracking.

Yesterday, he and other survivors met Ms Bligh and the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, who have toured flood-ravaged areas this week. After being shown around Grantham – or what remains of it – Ms Bligh noted "the way that the town has been literally picked up and turned around and deposited in fields and roads". She added: "What I saw can only compare to a war zone or perhaps a cyclonic hurricane."

After the wave struck the town, locals ran along the railway line, trying to beat the rapidly rising waters. Climbing on to the bridge, they frantically passed their children to neighbours on the other side, where there was access to higher ground. Some failed to make it before a final, vicious surge covered the bridge. "A friend's daughter was taken in the water, and she's since miscarried," said Lesley Johnson, who was part of the human chain.

Four days on, Ms Johnson has not been back to the bridge, which is disfigured by mud and rotting trees. Yesterday she walked half-way down the road towards it and then halted, weeping. Asked what it represented to her, she replied: "Death. Too many people have died there."

The whole of Grantham has been designated a crime scene, and yesterday dozens of police and Army officers were still searching for bodies in fields, creeks and the wreckage of houses. Residents – most of whom are staying at evacuation centres in the neigbouring towns of Gatton and Helidon – have not been allowed back to view their damaged homes. With the main highway west closed, Grantham has been cut off all week, with the only access by air.

An estimated 60ml of rain was dumped in one hour on the Lockyer Valley – known as Brisbane's "salad bowl" thanks to its abundant crops – on Monday. The rural town of Toowoomba was the first place hit by the tsunami, which then powered through the valley, destroying everything in its path. One after another, tiny hamlets – Murphys Creek, Withcott, Spring Bluff, Postman's Ridge – were devastated.

The waters have now receded, exposing a grim vista dotted with mangled cars and mountains of stinking debris. Some houses stand at a crazy angle, others have been swept away, leaving behind bare rectangles. In the rubble lies a fishing rod, and a golf club, and a child's rubber ring. This part of town – the low-lying eastern half – is still and silent, as if frozen in time by the violent passage of the floods.

Among the few vehicles in Grantham yesterday was a funeral van. Another body had been found, bringing the total death toll in Brisbane and the Lockyer Valley to 16. The Grantham fatalities include a man who died while trying to lift his disabled mother out of reach of the angry waters and the wife and two children of a local firefighter.

Locals speak in whispered tones about the missing, as if not wishing to tempt fate. Whole families are still unaccounted for, they say.

Mr Warburton is tormented by thoughts of those he was unable to help. "I'm just trying to work it out – trying to put it into filing cabinets in my head so I can close it up."

Ms Johnson is haunted by the image of cars being sucked into the swollen creek. "You can't sleep at night," she said. "You go to close your eyes and all you can see is those little kids [at the railway bridge]. And you hear the noise of the cars hitting against the bridge."

Grantham will be rebuilt, survivors say. But Mr Warburton knows of four families so traumatised by this week's events that they have vowed not to return even to salvage their possessions.

Brian Squires ran to his house after seeing the wall of water approaching. "It nearly beat me back, it was coming up so fast," he said. His home was totally flooded. His wife, Janice, wants to leave Grantham.

When the search for bodies has concluded and residents are allowed back in, the healing process will begin, says Ms Johnson. "Then we can all grieve and mourn for those that we've lost."

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