Jacob, Stephanie and Ella-Jane are farewelled together: Picture: Scoot Davis
Jacob, Stephanie and Ella-Jane are farewelled together: Picture: Scoot Davis

Daughter's final moments in car before family drownings

THE sole survivor of a horrific NSW flood tragedy recalls her family playing "I spy" in the car seconds before it plunged into a river, an inquest has heard.

Chloe-May Kabealo swam out of the sinking van in which her mother Stephanie King, 43, and her siblings Ella-Jane, 11, and Jacob, 7, drowned after it skidded off a muddy road into the flood-swollen Tweed River at Tumbulgum two years ago.

Siblings Ella-Jane Kabealo, 11, Chloe-May Kabealo, 9, and Jacob Kabealo, 7. Picture: Facebook
Siblings Ella-Jane Kabealo, 11, Chloe-May Kabealo, 9, and Jacob Kabealo, 7. Picture: Facebook

The then-nine-year-old told her heartbroken father Matt Kabealo they had been playing "I spy with my little eye" immediately before the devastating crash, documents tendered to the inquest reveal.

"It was Mummy's turn and she had the letter W, no one could guess what it was," Mr Kabealo told police, recounting what his daughter told him.

"Mummy started to swear a lot and the next thing (Chloe-May) could remember was floating to the top and seeing a soccer ball floating away. It all happened so fast."

Soaking wet and bleeding, Chloe-May ran 1km to a nearby property to raise the alarm, telling shocked neighbours: "Our car slid into the water … my mum is still in it."

"She was running down the road screaming out for help. She doesn't remember how she got out of the car or the car getting into the water," Mr Kabealo told police.

The family’s van is lifted out of the river. Picture: Glenn Hampson
The family’s van is lifted out of the river. Picture: Glenn Hampson

Suzette Wheatley was 200m away delivering supplies to homes damaged after ex-Cyclone Debbie caused record flooding in the area when she saw the slow-moving white Hyundai Imax flip on to its roof and crash into the raging water on April 3, 2017.

"I couldn't believe what I was seeing," she told police. "I recall seeing all four wheels sticking up before it sank below the surface … it was less than 10 seconds."

Neighbour Ben Darcy was the first person to see Chloe-May in his driveway before he raced to the riverbank, while his sister and partner clothed the "dripping wet, shaking, visibly upset and shocked" girl, the documents reveal.

"I've got the little girl here, Chloe … she was in the car, she escaped through the window but she said her mother, her brother and her sister are in the car," Mr Darcy's sister Kristelle Martin said in a triple­-0 call.

"She made it just out of the window in time, she said, before she couldn't breathe … just before the water took it over."

"Is she OK?" the operator asked. "She's OK, but … I just hope they can get to the others­," Mrs Martin said.

 

Her husband Ryan Martin and Mr Darcy jumped into the freezing water where the van had vanished and frantically searched for it.

"The water was so brown you couldn't see anything," Mr Darcy said in his police statement. "It was so deep, I couldn't get to the bottom."

Local former police officer Matthew Grinham joined the two men, diving relentlessly until they could no longer see bubbles rising to the surface.

Stephanie, with daughter Ella-Jane, was remembered as a caring nurse. Picture: Facebook
Stephanie, with daughter Ella-Jane, was remembered as a caring nurse. Picture: Facebook

Emergency services soon took over. An on-duty police officer said he put his arm around the shoulder of his exhausted former colleague­, telling him: "You're the ­bravest bastard I know. You've done your best mate, you've done your best."

At the house, paramedics wrapped the pale, cold and crying Chloe-May in a space blanket before treating her for neck pain and cuts to her legs and feet, as Mrs Martin tried to find the young girl's father.

"Can you tell me where he works, honey? … What does he do, sweety?" she asked, while still on the triple-0 call.

Evidence submission shown to the court at the inquiry into the drownings.
Evidence submission shown to the court at the inquiry into the drownings.

Mr Kabealo, then 46, was at the family's Bilambil Heights home when he got a phone call from a paramedic saying: "We've got Chloe-May. You need to meet us at the hospital."

"What about the rest of my family? What's happened?" Mr Kabealo asked.

When the chef arrived at Tweed Heads Hospital, police officers told him Ms King and their two kids had become trapped under water and died.

He would later learn that Ms King, a much-loved New Zealand-born nurse, had sacrificed­ her life desperately trying to save their children.

"I just went into shock and lost it," Mr Kabealo said.

Acting State Coroner Teresa­ O'Sullivan will hand down her findings on Friday.

Evidence submission shown to the court at the inquiry into the drownings.
Evidence submission shown to the court at the inquiry into the drownings.

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