Survivor: ‘I still won’t set foot on a balcony’
MOTHER of three Melinda Gaudion lives with constant pain and cannot bring herself to step onto a balcony.
The nightmares in which she is "falling and crashing" have finally stopped, but 10 years after Queensland's most horrific deck collapse, she is anxious and emotionally fragile.
Mrs Gaudion, from East Brisbane, is speaking publicly for the first time since the tragedy on November 20, 2008 - a day that should have been full of joy.
She was among 70 people gathered at an Ascot home for a mothers' lunch to celebrate the graduating seniors of Anglican Church ("Churchie") Grammar School.
Shortly after 1pm, the floor of a balcony at the Upper Lancaster Rd property - then owned by Tim and Belinda Biggs, whose son Jack was school captain - gave way, sending up to 35 people falling 3.2 metres to the ground.
Architect Annette Spencer, a 48-year-old mother of two, died the following day from head injuries, while 15 other women, including Mrs Gaudion, were admitted to hospital.
"I'm very fortunate that I'm here and I'm walking, and that I got to see my boys grow up - Netty didn't get to do that," she said, wiping away tears.
Mrs Gaudion, 57, and Mrs Spencer, whose sons rowed and played rugby together, travelled to the event with two other mothers, arriving late because of bad traffic.
"It was a really hot day, so when we got there we walked straight out to the front of the deck for some fresh air. We were chatting and sipping wine and then the floor gave out and I remember thinking, 'What the hell is happening?'
"I fell straight down and one of my friends slid underneath me. I broke her ankle with my weight, but she saved me from spinal damage.
"We were just lying there and I could see Netty out on the grass. She wasn't moving.
"After what seemed a long time, we heard sirens, and all the people who hadn't been hurt were running around trying to help.
"Another friend had been thrown even further out, into the bushes. They didn't find her as quickly."
Mrs Gaudion, a retired nurse, suffered two broken ankles, bruising and shock. She spent three months in a wheelchair. Others fractured shoulders, hips and jaws.
Reflecting ahead of the 10th anniversary, Mrs Gaudion struggled to remain composed.
"It changed everything," she said.
"Many girls still have really bad complications from their injuries, and the girls who were standing on the other deck had nightmares because of watching us all fall."
The Queenslander's collapsed balcony was built about 1910 and was in original condition, apart from support posts that were replaced in the early 2000s during a renovation by previous owners.
Following the tragedy, Mrs Gaudion and another injured parent, Annie Gillespie, sued the Anglican Diocese of Brisbane for failing to ensure a safe function venue.
They also lodged civil suits against builder Shaun Duignan, who did the renovation, and Australian Building Inspection Service Pty Ltd, which inspected the $1.735 million home prior to the Biggs purchasing it in 2005.
Brisbane coroner John Lock, in handing down his findings into Mrs Spencer's death, found the balcony collapsed because the nails fixing the joists to the bearer had corroded, and "because the joists were only cogged in 20mm, the bowing (of the bearer) became sufficient … for some of the joists to be barely supported".
Mr Lock concluded, however, that "the potential mode of failure of the balcony collapse was not one that was reasonably identifiable by the two families who owned the property between 2001 and 2008, those who inspected the property in 2001 and 2005, nor those involved in the renovation".
Mrs Gaudion said without a finding of responsibility, her civil suits were unsuccessful.
"I am now just trying to get on with my life, and I'm grateful for every day."