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Heroic Trio Rescue Tourists in Floodwater

Royal Life Saving NT Bravery Awards
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30/07/2018

It wasn’t the average first week of work for Northern Territory Police Constable Zachary Rolfe, who stripped down to his undies to rescue two missing tourists in raging floodwater.

The tourists - Ms Lam, from Hong Kong, and Mr Pan, from Taiwan - had been driving in a hire car that was swept away in the flood waters west of Alice Springs.

Constable Zachary Rolfe and Senior Constable Kirstina Jamieson were among six police officers called on scene to locate the missing tourists.

The group located Mr Pan in the middle of the floodwater clinging to a small tree. Ms Lam was nowhere to be seen.

Mr Rolfe said, “The male was distressed and struggling to maintain his grip on the tree.”

With Emergency Services still on their way, they determined that they had to move quickly otherwise they feared Mr Pan would drown.

Rolfe and Jamieson were the most confident swimmers of the group, and entered the raging water with the help of civilian Michael Priestly in attempt to rescue Mr Pan.

"The water was pretty wild at that point," Mr Rolfe said. "It was deep and the current was extremely strong."

The trio stripped their clothing to avoid extra weight dragging them down, and managed to swim to a small island near the tree that Mr Pan was clinging to. They threw a rope to the struggling man and pulled him to safety.

Mr Pan was exhausted and in a state of shock. Although he couldn’t speak English, he communicated that the woman in the car with him, Ms Lam, had been washed further downstream.

With rescue crews unable to get across to the other side of the river, Mr Rolfe swam across the strong torrent in search of Ms Lam. Still only wearing his briefs, the young constable walked and swam through thick vegetation with the fear of a crocodile finding him before he found Ms Lam.

“I constantly had branches and debris around my legs and just assumed that one of the touches was from a crocodile. After a small breather on the edge of the river, I regained my composure and decided that if a croc tried to grab me I would just have to deal with it,” said Mr Rolfe.

After walking alone for 5km, Mr Rolfe was elated to spot Ms Lam across the other side of the floodwater, and slowly made the precarious journey back across the surging water to reach Ms Lam.

Halfway across it dawned on Mr Rolfe that he was in trouble, saying “I realised the full danger of the position I was in, in the middle of the flooded river. At this point, I realised that I could drown but I didn't have any choice, I couldn't just stay in the water, and I couldn't return against the current [back] to the bank.”

Using his last ounce of strength, Mr Rolfe and managed to swim to a tree and pull himself out.

Mr Rolf said, “I then walked towards the woman who was crying, yelling that she needed the police. I told her I was the police and that her partner was safe. She broke down for a short time before hugging me tightly and screaming that I was crazy.”

Together they made the long barefoot trip back to find emergency services.

Zachary Rolfe, Kirstina Jamieson, and Michael Priestley were all recognised with a Royal Life Saving Bravery Cross for their outstanding efforts to rescue Ms Lam and Mr Pan.

Mr Rolfe was also awarded a Prince Michael of Kent Certificate of Merit, a Commonwealth Drowning Prevention award recognising outstanding acts of bravery in an aquatic environment.

Floss Roberts, Executive Director, Royal Life Saving Society NT said, “The two police Officers and civilian saved the lives of two tourists despite all odds. Their acts of bravery are outstanding, and we’re so proud to recognise their heroic efforts.”

“More than half of unintentional flood-related drowning deaths in Australia are due to driving through floodwater. Thankfully in this situation, everyone was successfully rescued, however, it’s a sobering reminder of how quickly conditions can change. For your safety, and for the safety of others, never drive or swim in flood waters.”

Click here to learn more about flood water safety.

Pictured: Senior Constable Kirstina Jamieson, Michael Priestly, Her Honour Vicki O’Halloran, and Constable Zachary Rolfe.