4 Apr 2017

NZer who drowned in NSW floods was 'trying to save her children'

6:20 pm on 4 April 2017

A New Zealand woman who drowned along with two of her children in northern New South Wales has been hailed a hero.

Stephanie King is missing, feared drowned, along with two of her children.

Stephanie King Photo: Facebook

Stephanie King, 43, lived in the town of Bilambil, but grew up in Auckland.

She and three of her children were driving by the flood-swollen Tweed River at Tumbulgum yesterday afternoon when their car slipped in mud and plunged into the water.

One of her daughters escaped and raised the alarm.

A dive squad recovered the bodies of Ms King, her seven-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter today.

Superintendent Wayne Starling of Tweed Byron Police said it was an absolute tragedy.

"She died trying to save her children. While the matter is going before the coroner, I have no doubt whatsoever that that woman is a hero and she'd be alive today if she wasn't trying to save her children."

He said: "The mother is a remarkable woman. We all have our accidents, there were just dire consequences on this occasion. The road is just so slippery over there."

The girl who escaped the car was taken to a local hospital.

Tweed Byron Police Chief Inspector Mick Dempsey said family were caring for her.

"She had no life-threatening injuries, [but] cuts and scratches and she's obviously traumatised by the incident, as well," he said.

The close-knit community has reached out to support Ms King's partner, Matt Kabealo, who is a chef at the Kingscliff Bowling Club.

The Club Managers' Association of Australia has set up a GoFundMe page for the family.

'They were down here helping'

Locals said the road next to the river, where the car went off, was muddy and slippery.

Dave Johnstone said the family were helping flood victims before the crash. Emergency services were alerted about 1.40pm.

"Apparently they were down here helping everybody else and ... cleaning up and were on their way home," he said.

Yesterday, Assistant NSW Police Commissioner Jeff Loy said the road the family drove on was closed because of mud and debris.

Police said a "road closed" sign was in place when officers attended the scene yesterday.

At least one local resident disputed that statement. Rob Stuttle told the ABC he had driven on the road the night before the family went missing.

Mr Stuttle, a pastor, said he wanted to "set the record straight".

"As far as I know, the road wasn't closed, and I don't want people to think it was the woman [driving] being irresponsible," he said.

"It's one thing to drive through signs that say a road is closed, and it's another thing to be driving on a muddy road and just slip off."

The Tweed River Valley has been at the centre of the state's flood emergency, which began last Thursday night and caused widespread devastation in the area.

'You just felt helpless'

Matt Grinham was travelling along Dulguigan Road near Tumbulgum when traffic stopped as the car went into the river.

He and two others went into the water to try and rescue the occupants, with the car having floated down about 40 metres from where it entered the river.

Mr Grinham struggled to open his eyes in the murky floodwaters as he followed the bubbles made by the submerged car.

"Even though we were diving down to the bubbles, we couldn't get deep enough to touch the car," he said.

"It was just one of those things, I suppose. You just felt helpless; couldn't do anything."

A local resident found the vehicle under water about 5m off the riverbank using a fishing boat with sonar gear.


Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs