Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Belshaw's World - Kempsey disaster – six killed, huge damage

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday  20 January 2010. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010.

On Wednesday 31 August 1949, the Armidale Express carried a special appeal from the Mayor of Armidale, L E Dawson.

Launching a Mayoral Appeal, Alderman Dawson said:

“The citizens of Kempsey have indeed suffered a major catastrophe, and our hearts go out to them in their distress and our sympathy is with families who have lost loved ones in the flood. As usual, Armidale citizens will, I know, do all that is expected of them.”

The previous Friday, 26 August, Arthur Lindeman had come on duty at Kempsey Aeradio at midnight.

Located at Kempsey airport, Kempsey Aeradio was one of twelve original stations built by AWA in 1938 to try to make the skies safer following several crashes.

Manned by a staff of five, the station provided communication between Brisbane and Sydney on a point-to-point Morse channel, with aircraft overflying Kempsey on a 24-hour basis. One of the prime navigational aids used by aircraft was a 33Mc Radio Range located on the airport, an NDB (non directional beacon) and a rotating light.

Kempsey Airport itself supported an intermittent Anson aircraft service to and from Sydney, along with and a Sunderland flying boat service to Taree, Port Macquarie and Grafton with road connections to Kempsey. Aviation pioneer and TAS old boy P G Taylor was one pilot on the Sunderland service.

It had begun raining very heavily. By 2 am the rain was torrential. Lindeman explained the situation to the Flight Checking Officer at Sydney and requested permission to close the station. A regular freighter was due out of Brisbane about this time and permission was refused.

“At about 3.30 am the wife of a local farmer and her young son arrived and asked if I had been outside lately”, Lindeman later recalled. “The water was lapping the top steps, a depth of about four feet. Equipment which could be moved was placed as high as possible after advising Sydney and Brisbane that the station was closing.”

With dawn breaking, the party headed across the airport for higher ground

There were snakes everywhere. As they passed through the airport gate, they eyed the snakes that coiled themselves round the fencing wires and gate posts.

Belgrave St Kempsey looking west from the road bridge in 1949 Rain continued, especially on the Saturday when another eight inches fell. The effects were devastating. It was pitiful”, Lindeman said, “to witness houses, outhouses and belongings being washed down the river.”

The photo shows Belgrave Street looking west from the road bridge.

Six people died in the flood, including a 13-year-old boy on a horse at Smithtown who drowned after he went out by horseback to get some cattle in for his dad. Rescue efforts were hampered by the collapse of the telephone system and the flooding of the local radio station.

Lindeman and his colleagues got the station operating again from temporary accommodation in the Police Station. However, Kempsey Airport communication and navigational facilities were never fully restored, leaving primary responsibility with Coffs Harbour.

Armidale citizens responded to the Mayor’s Appeal.

Rotary Club President G A Mills announced that the Club had given the Kempsey Club £25 to disburse as the Kempsey Club saw fit, while Armidale citizens donated generously to the Mayor’s Appeal.

Sixty years later, August 2009, Kempsey commemorated the disaster with a special exhibition organised, appropriately, by the Kempsey SES.

This year has seen more major floods at Kempsey, if not on the scale of 1949.

The Armidale-Kempsey Road once again collapsed. Perhaps, this time, we may see a better all-weather road as a result.

Note on sources: This column is drawn especially from the records of the Airways Museum and Civil Aviation Historical Society, Armidale Express, Mcleay Argus.

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