Reader's Digest Asia Pacific
Trapped Under the City Square
As the temperature soars, a boy goes for a swim in a Melbourne fountain.
The temperature in Melbourne had climbed to 42°C, making January 14, 1981, the hottest day so far that summer. It was school holidays, and Jocelyn Hopkins had listened for hours to the complaints of four overheated boys in her charge: sons Leigh, 13, and Daniel, 12, and their friends John Thompson, 14, and Carl Powell, 12.
Late afternoon brought little relief from what the newspapers were describing as “the big swelter”. When the six-o’clock news showed dozens of youngsters splashing in the Civic Square fountain, Jocelyn decided that would be just the place to take the boys.
They arrived a few minutes after seven. The three water attractions – a rectangular pond, a large central fountain dominated on one side by a bronze statue of Australian explorers, and a 4.5-metre wall of water cascading over steps and large stone blocks – were alive with splashing children.
John had his arm in plaster, and watched while his friends headed for the water. Leigh and Daniel walked round the stone blocks towards a low wall that allowed easy access. Carl, a slightly built boy dressed in T-shirt and shorts, took a short cut, striding over the blocks into hip-deep water near the statue.
“Hey, Leigh!” he shouted to his friend, who turned to see Carl waving. And then, as Leigh stood spellbound, Carl vanished – simply
dropped straight down, as if swallowed by a giant fish.
Sensing that something terrible had happened, Leigh immediately dived in after his friend. He felt along the bottom of the fountain – the bubbling water made visibility difficult – and located a hole about a metre across. Without a moment’s thought for his own safety, Leigh plunged in head first, straight down the water-filled tunnel. As he twisted about, Leigh’s hand touched what felt like a face. It was Carl! Leigh grabbed his friend’s hair, but the powerful current created by the fountain’s circulatory system swept Carl away.
Leigh kicked hard against the concrete at the bottom, cutting his feet on glass and other debris, and fought his way back to the surface. On the way, he bumped his face against two pipes running across the shaft. For a moment, he thought he was trapped, but he worked past the pipes and burst up out of the water. Still in his fist was a clump of Carl’s hair.
Down below, Carl was being tossed by the current like clothes in
a washing-machine. Having lost all sense of direction, he didn’t realise that he was being swept along another tunnel, one running at right angles to the vertical shaft into which he had plunged. I’m in the sewers, he thought. I’ll be carried out to the river ... I’m going to die!
FOUR METRES ABOVE, in the warm evening light, Leigh Hopkins stood gasping in his dripping clothes. Then he ran round the fountain complex to his mother.
“Carl’s drowned!” he cried.
From the look on Leigh’s face, Jocelyn instantly knew something was very wrong. “Get the police, get the fire brigade – get moving!” she yelled. Leigh dashed across the square, through evening strollers, to a police constable on duty outside the town hall.
“My friend has gone down the fountain! You’ve got to help him!”
The constable switched on his walkie-talkie. At Metropolitan Fire Brigade headquarters in East Melbourne, two kilometres from the square, firemen Garry Cronin, 37, and John Rodda, 39, heard the alarm bell at 7.33pm. By 7.36, Cronin, Rodda and six other firemen were at the square, where a crowd of curious onlookers had already gathered.
Hearing what had taken place, Cronin was at first sceptical that a boy had simply vanished beneath the fountain. After all, the firemen had had a run of false alarms lately. But Leigh frantically insisted, along with his mother and friends. Finally persuaded, Cronin and Rodda stripped to the waist. Following Leigh’s instructions, they located with their feet the hole through which Carl had vanished. They looked at each other. If a boy had gone down there, his chances were slim indeed.
Should they risk their lives to enter a water-filled tunnel to look for a boy who might already be dead? Yes, they decided, they would have to take the risk. With no time to locate scuba equipment, Cronin and Rodda donned back-pack air cylinders and face masks used for entering smoke-filled buildings. The apparatus wasn’t designed for underwater, but in a quick practice swim around the fountain they found they could breathe with it.
Meanwhile, the police had found an employee in the square’s maintenance room who was able to turn off the fountain’s circulatory system. The
IF A BOY HAD GONE DOWN THE HOLE, HIS CHANCES OF SURVIVAL WERE SLIM INDEED
water calmed. Attached to a 30-metre rope held by his colleagues, Cronin dropped feet first into the dark hole. He tried to touch the bottom, but his air tanks made him too buoyant. His head smashed into the two pipes running across the shaft, and he broke a tooth and cut his chin.
To help him stay down, Rodda stood on Cronin’s shoulders in the shaft while Cronin groped along the walls to feel how the tunnel system ran. He located the entrance to the horizontal tunnel, but in the murky darkness he realised it was too dangerous to travel along it alone. He went back up.
The two firemen soon went down again, taking with them a two-metre pole with a hook on the end used for pulling down ceilings during fires. They pushed the pole into the horizontal tunnel and probed about until they caught something. It had a lot of drag. Both men feared the worst. But their catch was a large plastic garbage bag.
When the firemen returned to the surface, police advised them to give up the search. Carl had now been missing for an hour; it seemed certain the boy was dead. Spectators were being moved away, and TV crews were starting to pack up their equipment.
BUT CARL was not dead. As he had been swept along the tunnel thrashing about wildly, lungs bursting, his fingers had scraped against a wall. He had tried to dig in, but the wall was too smooth. Then, he bumped against something round, some sort of pipe. His momentum was slowed and he managed to grab hold and haul himself up in the water, praying he’d burst through to fresh air. But his head struck something hard. The roof. There was no way out!
Now he could no longer hold his breath. He had to inhale. He opened his mouth – and breathed! Incredibly, he had found a pocket of air, a small recess in the roof of the cavern. Breathing in gasps, he filled his lungs.
He lowered his face, and immediately touched water. Trying to establish just how much air space he had, he moved round the pipe. All he had was about 30 centimetres – a space not much bigger than his head. He would have to live in this tiny area until help came. If it came.
He wrapped his arms like steel round the pipe. He wasn’t going to be swept away. But the water was cold, and Carl was already beginning to shiver. He was aware that death might not be far off.
HIS HEAD STRUCK SOMETHING HARD. THE ROOF. THERE WAS NO WAY OUT
Suddenly, he felt the water go calm. He wondered: Are they coming for
me? Although he did not realise it, the circulating water had brought the air bubbles that kept him alive. Now, as Carl breathed, his little air pocket was being rapidly depleted.
He could see nothing, hear nothing. “Why won’t somebody come?” he cried aloud. The sound of his own voice reassured him, and he began to sing a favourite song. But he soon felt drowsy. He wanted to close his eyes to sleep. He had been down there now for an hour and 10 minutes.
ABOVE THE GROUND, an ambulance worker waited with Carl’s mother, Kathleen Powell, and tried to prepare her for the worst. She had rushed from her home, seven kilometres away, but the police took her to a nearby shop. No one wanted her to see the stretcher and blanket waiting for the remains of her son.
Only one person still believed there was a chance that Carl was alive. “Until a body is found, there’s still hope!” Rodda told his colleagues. Now, he stood beside Cronin and watched as the water level went down, thanks to an 18-tonne pump that had been called in from brigade headquarters. The pump had been back in service only since 4.30 that day, after a breakdown a week earlier.
The water level dropped rapidly but Rodda felt they couldn’t wait until the vertical shaft was fully drained.
Accompanied by Cronin, he climbed down a ladder that had been placed in the shaft and waited at the bottom. The water was half-way down the shaft. As soon as there were four or five centimetres of air space along the ceiling of the horizontal tunnel, he’d swim in there on his back.
Then, as that tiny air space widened, he thought he heard something. Was it a cry? He sent Cronin racing up the ladder to yell at everyone to be quiet. There it was again!
“My God!” Rodda shouted. “The kid’s alive!”
Cronin scrambled down the ladder in response to Rodda’s call. Holding up two high-powered lamps, they swam backwards along the tunnel, taking advantage of the air space. Rodda scraped his nose against the slimy roof. Some three metres along, Rodda, who was ahead of Cronin, burst into a small chamber. Turning slightly, he found himself staring into the missing boy’s white face. It was a stupid thing to ask, he realised later, but it was the first thought that came into his head. “What are you doing here?” he said to Carl.
Disorientated and sleepy from inhaling stale air, Carl’s face showed terror as the lights glared at him. He was shivering from the cold.
“Get me out of here!” he cried. “I want my mum!” But he would not let go of the pipe. Rodda and Cronin spoke to him gently, and after some tough tugging the men managed to
pry his fingers free and swim him back to the ladder.
As the firemen helped Carl up the ladder, his mother cried out ecstatically, “He’s alive! They’ve got him!”
Carl, his pallid face a stark contrast to his dark hair, was quickly wrapped in blankets and placed on a stretcher. As his mother leaned over him with tears in her eyes, he told her, “I’m all right, Mum.” It was now 8.53pm. Carl had been in the shaft for an hour and 40 minutes.
An ambulance sped Carl and his mother to the Queen Victoria Medical Centre, where he was treated for abrasions on his hands and legs. In an adjoining room, Carl’s brave friend Leigh was having his cut feet attended to. When Leigh heard Carl talking, he ran in to greet him. “Wow!” he said, “were you lucky.” And the two boys grinned.
JOHN RODDA went back to the Civic Square the next day and climbed down the empty shaft and along the tunnel. He saw scratches in the slime on the walls where Carl had searched desperately for a grip, and he saw the finger marks on the pipe to which the boy had clung.
He remains amazed that the boy survived. There were so many ‘ifs’. If Leigh Hopkins and his mother had not raised the alarm so promptly ... if that recess had not existed in the underground chamber ... if the brigade’s water pump had been unavailable ...
Rodda says now that Carl Powell’s rescue from the tunnel “was nothing short of a miracle”.
THIS ARTICLE HAS BEEN RECORDED AS AN RD TALKS PODCAST FOR YOUR LISTENING PLEASURE. TO LISTEN, GO TO WWW.READERSDIGEST.COM.AU/PODCASTS