Bush Legends: Karratha man Terry Swetman lays bare haunting memories of being an SES volunteer

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Steve ButlerThe West Australian
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Years of emergency services volunteering in some of WA’s harshest terrain, couldn’t prepared Terry Swetman for the scenes of Cyclone George in 2007.
Camera IconYears of emergency services volunteering in some of WA’s harshest terrain, couldn’t prepared Terry Swetman for the scenes of Cyclone George in 2007. Credit: The West Australian

Nothing, not even more than 15 years of emergency services volunteering in some of WA’s harshest terrain, could have prepared Terry Swetman for the scenes below as his helicopter circled the ravages of Cyclone George in 2007.

Destruction met Mr Swetman’s gaze in every direction as the fury of one of Australia’s most powerful tropical cyclones was laid bare at a remote railway construction site south of Port Hedland.

“Looking at the scene from the helicopter, I don’t mind admitting I’d hoped I wasn’t out of my depth because the place was absolutely destroyed,” said a sombre Mr Swetman, who had arrived at the scene three hours after the cyclone hit.

Smashed donga at the Indee Station camp.
Camera IconSmashed donga at the Indee Station camp. Credit: Barry Baker/WA News

“There were dongas blown through the bush, destroyed and lying on their side. There were others that were crushed and it was an absolute mess ... you just couldn’t believe how much damage had been done and I was a bit apprehensive about what I was going to see when I landed.”

That anxiety would prove to be well-placed.

Two workers, Debra Till and Craig Raabe, died from injuries they received while sheltering from the cyclonic winds in their temporary Fortescue Metals Group camp accommodation.

Family pic of Debra Till who was killed in Port Hedland by Cyclone George. Debbie has two sons Andrew Till and Adrian Till. Pictured with her husband John Till and their grandson Tyson Till.
Camera IconDebra Till was killed in Port Hedland by Cyclone George. Credit: Unknown/Family

Other injured people were taken to cool rooms, which were considered the most sturdy structures at the site, and meat hooks were banged into roofs in a makeshift triage area for patients who required emergency fluid bags.

Cyclone George was the world’s most powerful cyclone in 2007, with wind gusts of up to 285km/h. About 200 workers were stranded without water or power at the flattened campsite, with only 70 of the 240 rooms still standing.

It was a miracle that there were not more fatalities, especially with initial fears workers had been buried under rubble. Pub-goers drinking at the Whim Creek Hotel said it had been battered with such force that rooms shook and trees bent over until they almost touched the ground.

SES Terry Swetman and Steve Cable Millstream searching a river for a car that washed into the water, killing the driver.
Camera IconSES Terry Swetman and Steve Cable Millstream searching a river for a car that washed into the water, killing the driver. Credit: supplied/supplied

The personal debrief was deep for Mr Swetman and others who attended. He was later nominated for the SES’s prestigious annual Peter Keillor Award for “exemplary contribution”.

“You don’t want to see anybody die,” he said.

“You also never want to second-guess yourself, but you do look back and think about whether there is a way you could improve what you do. It’s not a job for everybody, you have to be a certain sort of person.”

Mr Swetman said being a team leader in the response to Exmouth’s devastating Cyclone Vance in 1999 and helping after a tornado tore through Karratha in 2011, leaving a “war zone”, also left haunting legacies in his mind.

You have to learn to shut off from reality and then try to come back later on to normal life,

Mr Swetman

He said it was confronting to see a well-loved local shell museum levelled by Cyclone Vance. He and his brothers had helped the elderly operator collect some of the shells as kids.

“I hadn’t seen him for about 15 years, so to see this poor old guy crawling through the rubble trying to find his shells and other bits and pieces was very upsetting,” he said. “Two months after that, they found him passed away in his room.”

Successfully helping to save the life of a man who had jumped into a giant silo in an attempted suicide had also been a difficult and daunting experience. The man, who suffered several serious injuries, returned to the SES unit later to offer his thanks.

During Mr Swetman’s early life, he and his family had lived in a caravan in Exmouth, where his father Bill was working as turbine operator at the now-former US naval base. Mr Swetman Sr was then offered a similar job with Hamersley Iron in 1968 and the family headed to Dampier.

Kathryn, Daniel, Jeremy, Ebony and Terry Swetman in Karratha in 1997.
Camera IconKathryn, Daniel, Jeremy, Ebony and Terry Swetman in Karratha in 1997. Credit: SUPPLIED/supplied

They then moved 20km away into Karratha in 1970, the year after the first homes were offered to residents, and were among fewer than 20 families living there and one of only three at the time with primary school-aged children.

“It was really bad, because when something bad happened, we were usually all playing together at the one house and they’d have no trouble finding any of us,” Mr Swetman quipped.

“We used to ride our pushbikes to Dampier to go swimming at the old ‘Shark Cage’ and that was a bit of a worry because when there was a high tide, the sharks used to get in and then they couldn’t get out. But life was great, we had a lot of freedom and had an absolutely great time growing up.”

Mr Swetman left school at 15 and became a marine mechanic after getting knocked back for a police cadetship. He wound up marrying Kath, literally the girl next door. Their relationship had blossomed after their respective parents had allowed him to escort her to a local dance.

Terry and Kath Swetman pictured in Hong Kong in 1980.
Camera IconTerry and Kath Swetman pictured in Hong Kong in 1980. Credit: supplied/supplied

She later became one of the first nurses at Nickol Bay Hospital in the early 1980s and later surprised her husband when she walked into the SES unit one day to declare she had also become a volunteer. They ultimately combined for 46 years of service.

“I told her it would have been nice to have a chat about it and she just told me she didn’t need my permission,” he said. “She’s a strong, independent person.”

The Swetmans, who both became road rescue instructors, also joined forces in 2014 to compete in the World Rescue Challenge in New Zealand.

His journey to the SES had been triggered by conversations with volunteers cleaning up after Cyclone Orson in 1989.

Brett Napier and Terry Swetman pulling in a 3.5m tiger shark 1989.
Camera IconBrett Napier and Terry Swetman pulling in a 3.5m tiger shark 1989. Credit: supplied/supplied

“I just remember seeing the guys in orange and what they were doing and thought it would be a pretty good gig,” Mr Swetman said.

“I’ve done a lot of road accident rescues and there have been a lot of hard times.

“There have been a lot of emotions and a lot of ups and downs and it sometimes very hard on the family, particularly when you have call outs and get deployed away for three or four days. You miss a few milestones and birthdays, but it’s been an absolutely awesome 30 years and there’s nothing I’ve regretted about any of it. If anybody wants to do emergency services, it’s the best thing you can do for life.”

His time of service taught him valuable life skills such as four-wheel driving, using a chainsaw, search and rescue, using communication equipment and knot tying. But it is not easy work, as Mrs Swetman’s rotator cuff would attest after she tore it while using the jaws of life after attending a car accident.

Terry Swetman, pictured at Swetman Way, Nickol.
Camera IconTerry Swetman, pictured at Swetman Way, Nickol. Credit: Danella Bevis/The West Australian

There is also the potential for mental scarring.

“You have to learn to shut off from reality and then try to come back later on to normal life,” he said.

“What I teach people is that what you’re seeing is not your fault, we didn’t cause this. And when all the training you did works and everything comes together and everyone is safe, it’s a very special thing.”

Mr Swetman, who ran a lawnmowing service for nearly a decade and was also a reporting officer at Karratha Airport for 16 years, said the Pilbara city had become more of a working hub than the social town he had learnt to love.

He and his wife have now moved to Chittering to be closer to the rest of their family and enjoy retirement.

They leave behind a Karratha street named after Mr Swetman’s father.

Lifeline 13 11 14

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