Real Stories

Drowning impacts thousands of people around Australia every year, including victims, their friends and family, rescuers, and communities. Here are just some of their stories.


Fleur Abd-El-Kaddous witnessed her husband, Peter (42), drown after the pair entered into the Murrumbidgee River during the Christmas holidays of 2016. The couple of 20 years were visiting family in Wagga-Wagga from Victoria and decided to take a dip in the river together to cool off from the scorching summer temperatures.

The pair were both strong swimmers and Mrs Abd-El-Kaddous had been swimming the Murrumbidgee River many a time having grown up in the area. However, recent flood waters created unfamiliar river conditions with a combination of unusually deep-water pockets and cold-water temperatures both contributing factors in Peter’s death.

Speaking from the experience Fleur says, “There are always outside influences within the River system that can catch even the best swimmers unaware or by surprise. You should always use a floatation device and test the waters before entering quickly, especially if you are visiting and don’t know the river system.”


Jason Ballerini learnt dangers of inland waterways firsthand when at age 16, he dived into a local waterway off the Murray River on a hot summer’s day.

“I’d swum there thousands of times. It was the swimming spot every summer. There was a log that stuck out from the bank and overhung the water - that was the diving board. I dived into the water headfirst,” said Jason.

Despite having swum there “thousands of times”, that day the sandbank had shifted and Jason dived from the metre high log into 50cm of water.

In an instant Jason became a C5 quadriplegic and lay underwater unable to move.

Fortunately Jason was pulled to the edge of the bank and resuscitated, however Jason is now unable to walk or stand, and has no feeling from the chest down.

Respect the River - Jason Case Study


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.