Honour for our unsung Fitzroy River hero over 40 years later

Rob Nebe rescued a teenager from the barrage when he was a fire officer back in the 1960s. Photo: Chris Ison / The Morning Bulletin
Rob Nebe rescued a teenager from the barrage when he was a fire officer back in the 1960s. Photo: Chris Ison / The Morning Bulletin Chris Ison

MAYOR Margaret Strelow on Friday gave her support to a push for a commemorative plaque to recognise Rob Nebe's life-saving bravery during a barrage rescue nearly 50 years ago.

While two teenagers tragically died on September 4,1968, Rob's bravery saved a third, Stephen Ward, 17.

This week the family of one of those who died hailed Rob a hero and called for a plaque to be installed at the barrage remembering both those who died, as well as his and another hero's efforts.

Staring into the Fitzroy River's churning waters, Rob Nebe knew a life jacket would not save him if he went under.

As he stood in a recess on the incomplete Fitzroy River Barrage and waited for a harness to be lowered down, he watched a "great wall of water" rush at a capsized boat.

The "awesome" power of the water was so strong it almost held the boat in place.

It was Wednesday, September 4, 1968, and the foaming water beneath the barrage floodway had already claimed the lives of two Rockhampton teenagers when their boat capsized about 4.30pm.

The third, 17-year-old Stephen Ward, had just been hauled to safety over the top of the barrage after standing for an hour in the small recess, which was designed to eventually hold the barrage floodgates.

After the capsize, Stephen had clung to the overturned boat, yelling frantically for help.

Eventually Mrs King, a resident on the north bank of the river, heard what she later described as sounds so faint she almost dismissed them. She notified nearby barrage construction workers, whose loud machinery had drowned out the boy's cries for help.

The workers threw a rope down from the top of the barrage and Stephen used it to climb into the recess.

Although he had been a fireman for less than six months, Rob was chosen for the rescue as the lightest man on the scene.

In his uniform with just a rope, harness and life jacket, Rob was slowly lowered off the barrage. In the recess, he gave the harness to Stephen and waited as the team of police, firemen and civilians hauled the young man to safety.

With the young man's life in the balance, Rob said there had been no time to consider any danger he would face.

"It just all happened so quickly," he said.

In situations like that, Rob said people being rescued would often leap out or try to grab their rescuer, putting both in danger, but Stephen remained level-headed.

"I was amazed how calm he was," Rob said. "He did everything I asked. Perhaps he was in shock, but he just stood in the gate and waited for me to get organised."

The search for the missing teenagers, 17-year-old Anthony Boyd Cook and 15-year-old Timothy Wickham, continued until 11 that night.

The following morning about 8.30, Thursday, September 5, Anthony's body was recovered about 45m downstream from the barrage. On Saturday, September 7, Timothy's body was also recovered.

About a week after the rescue, Stephen's dad brought him to the station to thank Rob for saving his life.

But it was all in the line of duty for Rob, who said he was just doing his job.

"We weren't really trained for that sort of thing," he said. "These days, for something like that you would probably get a medal for bravery.

"It's probably the biggest (rescue) I've done.

"Nothing compared to it."

Topics:  firefighter fitzroy river rescue

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