Flood heroes: 'It's what I do' – how a tugboat captain helped avert disaster

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The Independent Online

the speedy actions of a tugboat captain, who has plied the Brisbane River for 45 years, prevented a massive chunk of concrete from smashing into one of the city's main bridges when the river reached its peak early yesterday.

The emergency arose after a 300-metre piece of the Riverwalk – an elevated walkway popular with locals and tourists – broke off as the swollen river rose to almost 4.5 metres in the middle of the night. The concrete then careered downriver, all 1,000 tons of it, heading for the Gateway Bridge.

Alerted to the potential disaster, Douglas Hislop chugged upriver in his tugboat, against the raging torrent, and came across the section of walkway apparently on course to hit the bridge pylons. Police had closed the bridge, fearing the impact might damage it or even cause it to collapse.

"I managed to nudge it so that it avoided the bridge and then kept in a direction away from boats and marina," Mr Hislop told The Sydney Morning Herald. "I knew it could cause a big problem as I helped put it there... it's a massive thing." A couple of kilometres on, another tug joined in and helped him stop the concrete from inflicting any damage on its way down the river.

The 65-year-old played down suggestions he was a hero. "It's what I do," he said. "Over the last few days, I have used the tug to remove four or five large barges along the river." The barges, along with numerous other boats, had been ripped from their moorings by the fast-moving waterway.

North-west of Brisbane, meanwhile, 60 people were rescued from floodwaters by a helicopter owned by Clive Palmer, a coal magnate who is one of Australia's richest men. They included three staff at Mr Palmer's Cold Mountain horse stud, near the town of Moore, who were stranded on a roof after floods engulfed the property this week.

The trio had to wait 14 hours, though, before the helicopter was scrambled, during which time they fought off deadly brown snakes seeking refuge on the roof. They also had to watch as the desperate horses thrashed around in the waters below them, with 14 of them eventually dying.

With Queensland's key coal industry at a virtual standstill because of flooded mines, roads and railway lines, Mr Palmer's fortunes have been affected by the state's worst natural disaster. Queensland supplies a significant proportion of the world's coking coal, used in the manufacture of steel.

Mr Palmer's trainer, Murray Sullivan, told the Herald Sun that he and his colleagues feared for their lives as they crouched on the roof, batting the snakes away with rolled-up towels. They had scrambled up there after the floodwaters rose to waist level, then higher.

"Not long after we got up there, the first of the brown snakes drifted by and clung to the roof," Mr Sullivan said. "We were drenched, it was dark, and we had to keep fending [them] away."

Mr Sullivan said 16 of the racehorses survived, treading water for at least seven hours until floodwaters subsided.