Contrary to what you might expect from a ski resort, the Thredbo disaster wasn't the result of an avalanche but a landslide.
It was 11:30 pm when the Carinya ski lodge was hit with rocks and dirty water from an embankment by the Alpine Way road above. The Bimbadeen was next, being hit not just by the landslide but also by the ruins of the other lodge. In a matter of minutes, both lodges were completely destroyed, leaving 19 people buried under earth, concrete, and muddy water.
While emergency services came to the site of the accident as fast as they could, they couldn’t immediately act due to the instability of the area. In fact, they couldn’t do anything but wait and listen to the screams of help coming from the rubble.
But, even after rescuers were allowed to move in and proceed with the operation, they couldn’t move as fast as they wanted to. For one, they had to be careful about their digging procedures as one wrong move could have triggered another landslide. Navigation through the rubble would also be a problem as the rescuers could only rely on the colour of the tiles as they searched through the ruins of the two lodges.
As a result, it was only at 8:50 pm the next day that rescuers were able to pull a body out of the rubble. While finding the body may have been a sign of progress in the operation, it was also an omen for how the rest of the rescue would go.
Still, rescuers continued on in search of survivors. But, it wasn’t until almost 48 hours after finding the first body that the team had found someone else. And, it wasn’t just a body either – someone was still alive under all that rubble.
The Thredbo Survivor
In the early morning of August 02, the rescue team made contact with Stuart Diver, a ski instructor that had been buried under concrete and surrounded by ice-cold waters for almost two and a half days.
During the landslide, Stuart and his wife, Sally, were trapped in their bedroom and surrounded by flooding waters. And, while Stuart was able to get his head above the water, Sally, unfortunately, wasn’t able to do the same. By the time the rescuers had made contact at 5:37 am, Stuart Diver’s wife had already passed away.
Despite all that, Stuart still had a chance to survive. Not only did rescuers know where he was, but they were also able to speak with him throughout the operation. That being said, saving him was still easier said than done. Rescuers had to be extra careful with Stuart as doctors figured his body had built up toxins during his time trapped under the rubble. In fact, Stuart could have gone into toxic shock if rescuers made any wrong moves.
The next 12 hours were long and difficult ones for Stuart and the crew. But, at 5:10 pm on the same day, the team successfully pulled him out of the rubble.
It was a moment of celebration for the rescue team and the people of Thredbo as they cheered for Stuart’s safe return. But, for as triumphant as that moment was, it proved to be the last spot of hope in this tragedy.
The Search Continues
The next couple of days didn’t prove to be as hopeful as Stuart’s rescue. The team continued to dig through the rubble, recovering bodies and searching for anyone who might still be alive. But as the days passed, it became clear that Stuart wasn’t just going to be the first survivor – he was going to be the only survivor of the Thredbo landslide.
That fact was confirmed in the early morning of August 07, when the 18th and final body was pulled out of the rubble.
What Caused The Thredbo Landslide?
While many landslides can be triggered by bad weather and other natural causes, the Thredbo landslide was, unfortunately, an accident that could have been prevented.
If the events of the Thredbo landslide were mapped, the first factor to be looked at would be the creep (or slow land movement) in the land by the Alpine Way road. It slowly weakened the pipe running along the road, which eventually led to water leakages. And, as the leakages became stronger, the water saturated the uncompacted land below the road until it finally collapsed and triggered the landslide.
That wasn’t the only cause of the accident, though. It turned out that the site of the accident was built on unstable debris from a centuries-old landslide, so the area was already unsafe, to begin with. It was the combination of this unstable foundation, the unchecked water leakages, and a whole host of contributing factors that led to the Thredbo disaster.
What’s Changed Since Then?
As one of the worst moments in Thredbo’s history, the landslide has had many effects on the community. Since the accident, Thredbo cams have been placed all around the village so the weather can be monitored 24/7. Retaining walls have also been installed by the Alpine Way road, helping to ensure that the accident doesn’t happen again.
On top of that, the rest of the country has become more aware of the dangers of landslides. Multiple studies have looked into not just the lethality of landslides when compared to other natural disasters but also better ways of responding to these incidents. In addition to that, an additional Urban Search and Rescue team was formed in response to the accident.
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The Thredbo disaster is definitely one of the worst events in Australian history. But, for as awful a tragedy as this is, the response to it has been anything but. Instead of crumbling under the weight of the accident, Australians continue to learn from the tragedy while making changes that ensure incidents like this can be avoided in the future.
If you want to learn more about the Thredbo disaster, you can check out resources like Heroes’ Mountain, a film about the accident told from Stuart Diver’s perspective.