‘No feel-good story here’: Flood tragedy destroyed family
From the moment he learned his childhood sweetheart, Donna Rice, 43, and son Jordan Rice, 13, were swept away to their deaths in the Toowoomba floods, John Tyson had questions.
He kept asking them. He became a thorn in the side of police and authorities - a persistent, some might say obsessed, man - who would not take his grief and outrage away and be quiet.
But now, says Mr Tyson, "for the first time, I've got a little bit of a chance to breathe".
He's had a win. Ten years on from the day that ruined his family's life, Mr Tyson reveals that in May last year, the State Government negotiated an out-of-court settlement of the civil case he brought against it for failures that contributed to the horrific deaths of his loved ones.
An undisclosed, six-figure settlement was reached, shared between Mr Tyson and his co-plaintiffs, two of his surviving sons, Blake, 20 and Kyle, 25.
Mr Tyson, 56, feels some vindication for his relentless pursuit and is glad he "stuck it to them" but is quick to make one point. "There's no feel-good story here."
The past 10 years have been a rolling nightmare of shock, grief, self-doubt, monumental parental challenges he admits to not managing well, homelessness and a failed marriage.
One bright spot is his son Oliver, now six, from his short marriage in 2014. "He's a really nice boy," he says.
But two of his other boys are doing it tough. Kyle is back in jail, after developing a drug habit following the deaths of his mother and brother and becoming involved in burglary and other crimes.
Blake is somewhere on the Gold Coast and hasn't contacted his father for more than four months. His oldest son with Donna, Christopher, 30, is well and working in Toowoomba.
"[That day] threw a hand grenade into my family and just exploded them everywhere," says Mr Tyson.
It was raining heavily that day, Monday, January 10, 2011, when Donna set off from their Vanity Street home in Toowoomba with Jordan and Blake in the car, to pick up Christopher and take him on errands.
On reaching the corner of James and Kitchener Streets, where water was across the road, Donna stopped short of the intersection. Photos show the Mercedes Benz was in shallow water. But after days of heavy rain, water was now gushing out of nearby East Creek and rising rapidly. The car stalled. It wouldn't restart.
Donna called triple-0 at 1.48pm. The police officer, who was new to the communications centre, chastised her for driving into flood waters. She refuted that, saying, "It wasn't this bad then".
The police officer failed to ask pertinent questions about her predicament - such as "How deep is the water, can you get out, who else is with you?" - and logged her call as routine. Not life-threatening.
Help came in the form of civilians. They secured ropes to a pole and battled against flood waters to the car which was being swamped. Jordan called to them, "Take my brother first". Blake was piggybacked to the relative safety of a guard rail around a flooded traffic light.
Donna and Jordan were now clinging to the outside and roof of the flooded car. The car started to move with the force of the water. It hit a sign post, the jolt throwing them into the water. They grabbed onto a light pole. Then, they lost their grip. Blake was watching.
Police came to tell Mr Tyson and Kyle that Donna had been found dead, Jordan was missing (his body was recovered later that day) and Blake was in hospital. "Kyle just started laying into the wall, tongue and groove walls," recalls Mr Tyson. "He was just ripping his hands to bits."
Kyle dealt with his grief by having friends in the house. By the end of the second week, Mr Tyson was not coping with their constant presence. He told Kyle they had to go. Kyle said if they went, he went. Mr Tyson said that was Kyle's choice. Kyle left. "And I really regret that."
The pain continued. On return to school, Blake was bullied. In early April 2011, he was chased by a group of kids with sticks, falling and breaking his collar bone. Mr Tyson pulled him out of school and they moved to the Gold Coast.
"It was bloody traumatic, the whole thing," he says. "It was so hard."
Then Mr Tyson learned that a police report prepared for the Coroner would say that Donna had contributed to her own and Jordan's deaths by driving into floodwater.
Mr Tyson rallied to defend her name. He and his lawyers prepared rebuttals of the report which relied on a police interview with a sad and confused Blake who had been interviewed without an adult.
In the end, Coroner Michael Barnes found Donna was not to blame. She had stopped in very shallow water to assess the situation and "could not be expected to have foreseen the rapid transformation of the scene".
But Mr Tyson couldn't let go. He became a bush lawyer, hunting down photographs, video and hydrology reports about the known flooding risk of the intersection.
He pinpointed the close proximity of police units and other emergency vehicles to Donna and Jordan at the time she called for help. He pieced together a timeline.
Much of that work became part of the recently concluded civil case.
Now that the court matter is over, Mr Tyson hopes for better relationships with his boys, particularly Kyle and Blake.
Blake had always been closer to his Mum than him and Mr Tyson didn't have the emotional strength to close the gap when they were flung together in grief and loss.
Neither got meaningful help for their trauma.
Mr Tyson, who had run a concrete rendering business and a motorsports import/export company before the tragedy, got work on construction sites. Blake, who did not return to school, would regularly sit in the ute all day while his father worked.
After Mr Tyson's marriage broke down, they moved out, leaving the home he had bought to be used by his ex-wife and Oliver. At times, they were homeless. "Blake has a lot of issues," says Mr Tyson.
And him? "I've made mistakes. Damn, I've made some bad ones," he says. "The floods took a lot of things from me, hey. I'm a pretty settled individual and I'm very lost as well. It just depends what part of me you look at."
He's worried Blake and Kyle will not make the best use of the money they received from the court case but says "they're men now, off doing their own thing".
"I told them, 'Every dollar these people gave us, that's a gulp of water your mother and brother took. It's not something to be taken lightly'."
Mr Tyson has returned to live in the house with his ex-wife and Oliver but plans to buy a bush block somewhere in southeast Queensland, build a shed and write a book about his family's ordeal and the problems he sees with "the system".
He also wants to launch a website called BplanB, aimed at providing expert advice on a range of emergency situations.
Maybe after that, he might be able to move on. "Change what you can but laugh at what you can't," he says. "By that I mean, it's a way for me to step back from things. You can't change everything. It's that simple."
Originally published as 'No feel-good story here': Flood tragedy destroyed family