Story transcripts

Torn Apart

Friday, February 11, 2011

Reporter: Michael Usher
Producer: Jo Townsend

Occasionally in this job, you hear a story that is so gut-wrenchingly tragic that you wonder where people find the strength to get out of bed each day.

That's how Michael Usher felt when he met Stacey Keep and her husband, Matthew.

They lost their 23-month-old daughter, Jessica, during the Queensland floods. The raging water literally ripped the little girl out of Stacey's arms. There's nothing you can say or do to make things better.

So we just listened. And we cried bucket-loads. And we tried to focus on the little miracles of that dreadful day.

Read Michael Usher's blog on this story and have your say

PHOTOS: Flood-ravaged Grantham

Full transcript:

MICHAEL USHER: Stacey and Matthew Keep should be enjoying the impending arrival of their new baby.

STACEY KEEP: A bit scared. But we'll be there for her.

MICHAEL USHER: But how do you count your blessings when you've just been dealt the ultimate loss? Barely four weeks ago their little daughter Jessica was swept away in the most horrific, heart-wrenching moment of Queensland's flood disaster.

STACEY KEEP: I had my baby girl in my arms and then she was taken from me and I thought, "It's only me that was left." I thought everybody was gone. I know that we'll get through this. We're a strong couple. But there will always be something missing. Like, our lives were perfect before this happened.

MICHAEL USHER: On that terrible afternoon the floods not only claimed little Jess but both Matt and Stacey's mothers - Pauline and Dawn. And when you see the footage of the wall of water that exploded into their home you can only marvel at how they and their two other children, Maddison and Jacob, survived. Stacey, there's your front door - looks like a bomb has hit it. This is what the water left of Matt and Stacey's dream home, built just a year ago in the tiny railway town of Grantham, in the Lockyer Valley.

MATTHEW KEEP: Yep, something we've worked hard for, yeah, started off with nothing and worked our way up, had the Australian dream and ended up with the Australian nightmare.

MICHAEL USHER: Once this was home to a busy, growing family - 5-year-old Maddison, 4-year-old Jacob and little Jessica, who was about to turn two. Stacey's mum, Dawn, lived with them, and on the afternoon of the flood, Matt's mother, Pauline, was visiting. All were unaware of the disaster bearing down on them.

MATTHEW KEEP: You could see the ground just disappearing as it was coming across the paddocks, like it had its own life force.

MICHAEL USHER: You're talking about it like it's a living beast of some kind?

MATTHEW KEEP: The sound. It was just like it was alive. It actually exploded into the house with such force and that.

MICHAEL USHER: It exploded?

MATTHEW KEEP: Yes. The pressure behind it, the force with it, once them windows and that exploded.

MICHAEL USHER: The whole house was shattering around you?

MATTHEW KEEP: Oh, yes. Yeah, for sure.

MICHAEL USHER: Matt and Stacey desperately gathered the three children in the kitchen, but then another wave of water struck and little Jacob was swept out of reach.

MATTHEW KEEP: Jakey got caught up in the wave. He disappeared in the water and that was the last I saw him.

STACEY KEEP: A 4-year-old boy in that amount of water, yeah, you wouldn't think he would have survived.

MICHAEL USHER: The grandmothers and little Maddison had been separated from the rest of the family by the rising water. Matt found Stacey's mum, Dawn, clinging to a ride-on lawnmower in the garage, but by then he was struggling to save himself.

MATTHEW KEEP: There was no way I could help her. It was just too hard and that.

MICHAEL USHER: Could you talk to her?

MATTHEW KEEP: Yeah, I did. I said to her, "I'm so sorry, there's nothing I can do for you, Dawn," and that's when I got washed out of the garage and that was the last thing she ever heard.

MICHAEL USHER: The raging torrent sucked Matt out of the garage and hurled him 200m down the road. Footage captured on the day shows him stranded on the neighbour's roof, fearing the rest of his family had been wiped out. What must have been going through your mind?

MATTHEW KEEP: The first thing that went through my mind was if the water goes above the eaves I jump in and go with my family.

MICHAEL USHER: Stacey, back in the house, after Matt had been washed away, what were you doing in here?

STACEY KEEP: I didn't know what to do. The water just kept coming.

MICHAEL USHER: But you couldn't have known what to do, it was just so powerful.

STACEY KEEP: Yes, like, with me being at that time 25 weeks pregnant and having a 23-month-old baby in my arms and trying to get around in the water, it was just too hard.

MICHAEL USHER: Stacey held tight to little Jess but was struggling to stay above the rising water, so she waded outside in search of higher ground.

STACEY KEEP: I held on to this downpipe with her for about five minutes and I was, at that stage I was so tired I couldn't hold on any longer.

MICHAEL USHER: Stacey is exhausted. Clinging to little Jessica, she makes a very brave decision. She lets go of the house and takes her chances in the water. But it is worse than she thought. It is a deep, raging torrent, and within seconds she and Jessica are swept almost a kilometre down the rail line.

STACEY KEEP: I couldn't fight it. It was impossible because I had to try and hold Jessie up above the water so she wouldn't go under.

MICHAEL USHER: How did you do that? I mean, how did you try and do that? I can't imagine.

STACEY KEEP: Well, a lot of the time I went under so she could be above the water. I just held her so her head was above my head at all times so she wouldn't get the water.

MICHAEL USHER: Then, the cruellest blow of all.

STACEY KEEP: This is where I would have got stuck with her and we got held under the water.

MICHAEL USHER: And your leg was trapped under one of the sleepers of the rail line here?

STACEY KEEP: Yes. All I know is II couldn't move. And yeah, the force of the water just kept coming. So at that point I didn't know what to do and so the water just swept her out of my arms.

MICHAEL USHER: Oh, God, that's just a terrible moment. You did absolutely everything you could have. You fought as long and as hard as you could to hang on to your little girl.

STACEY KEEP: Still, I'll never forget it, that feeling, having your own child swept away from your arms and there's nothing you can do. A piece of my heart that's missing. I'll never get it back.

MICHAEL USHER: At that devastating moment Stacey thought she'd lost everyone and everything she loved. But what she didn't know was, back in the submerged house, Maddison and Jacob were, unbelievably, alive.

JACOB KEEP: And the water was really, really high!

MICHAEL USHER: The water was way, way high, wasn't it?

JACOB KEEP: Yeah, and I was under.

MICHAEL USHER: You were under. How was that? Were you OK?

JACOB KEEP: Well, I just...

MICHAEL USHER: Ah, you held your nose. Turns out, Jake had been swept into his parents' shower and somehow managed to hold on. Were you standing like that, were you?

JACOB KEEP: Yeah!

MICHAEL USHER: Were you shouting out to anyone?

JACOB KEEP: Yeah, I was. I was crying.

MICHAEL USHER: I reckon that's OK.

JACOB KEEP: I was crying for Dad and Mum.

MICHAEL USHER: That was a bit scary, wasn't it? But you were really brave.

JACOB KEEP: And the water swept Granny and Grandma and Jessie.

MICHAEL USHER: Both grandparents had died in the deluge. But the waters rose for another two hours as the children hung on alone, Jacob in the bathroom and Maddy floating on a couch wedged under the ceiling, calling to each other for support and encouragement.

MADDY KEEP: I was saying, "Jacob, Daddy's coming!" That was what I telled him, "Daddy was coming."

MICHAEL USHER: You're a very good girl, you were making sure your brother was OK.

MADDY KEEP: Yeah, and not to go out the shower.

MICHAEL USHER: Meanwhile, at the railway line, a shattered Stacey had all but given up when suddenly a shift in the water freed her and she was able to scramble to safety. And at that moment she turned and saw Matt on the rooftop, within shouting distance. Both thought they'd lost everything, but now had each other. What was that moment like?

STACEY KEEP: Happy but sad at the same time because I knew when, like, I would see him I'd have to tell him that I failed.

MICHAEL USHER: You didn't fail. There's no way you failed. You tried your absolute hardest in the worst of conditions and you fought to the very end. Matt, she didn't fail.

MATTHEW KEEP: No. No-one failed that day. No-one did. We all did our best.

MICHAEL USHER: At last, Matt was airlifted to safety from the neighbour's roof and was finally able to make his way back to the house to find, incredibly, Jacob and Maddy were also still alive and the family's survivors could be reunited.

MATTHEW KEEP: It was absolutely amazing.

MICHAEL USHER: Then to suddenly have two children in your arms.

MATTHEW KEEP: Yeah. The best feeling ever. Best feeling ever.

MICHAEL USHER: I bet you didn't want to let go of that little guy?

STACEY KEEP: No. Yeah, I didn't think he wanted to let go of his mother either. They just held on and they knew that Jessie was gone and Jakey's like, "The water took Jessie away?" and I said, "Yes."

MICHAEL USHER: Jacob said that?

STACEY KEEP: Yep.

MICHAEL USHER: He knew?

STACEY KEEP: He said, "The naughty water."

MICHAEL USHER: In the heart-breaking aftermath, Matt and Stacey are left to wonder how different things could have been if they'd been warned of the coming danger. Why weren't there warnings?

MATTHEW KEEP: That's something we will find out, Michael. That's something that does need to be answered. They evacuated people out of town Sunday night before this, hey? No-one come to evacuate anyone this day.

MICHAEL USHER: If you'd had just a few minutes warning?

MATTHEW KEEP: Five minutes would have been enough.

MICHAEL USHER: Five?

MATTHEW KEEP: Oh, probably two. Two.

MICHAEL USHER: A matter of minutes. Lost minutes that cost a young family so dearly.

MATTHEW KEEP: I just hope the two grandmas are looking after our little girl now wherever they are and we'll catch up one day.

MICHAEL USHER: Does that help you, Stacey?

STACEY KEEP: Yes, knowing that Jessie's with her two grandmothers that she loved.

MICHAEL USHER: Did she?

STACEY KEEP: So much, yeah. That makes you feel a little bit better.

MICHAEL USHER: Will you come back here?

MATTHEW KEEP: Not here. I already made a promise to little Jakey that we'll build on a hill.

MICHAEL USHER: High up on a hill?

MATTHEW KEEP: High up on a hill.

MICHAEL USHER: They'll rebuild in Grantham and rebuild their lives as well. A new beginning that will start with the birth of a baby daughter in April. This one's a fighter too?

STACEY KEEP: Yeah.

MICHAEL USHER: And it's a little girl?

STACEY KEEP: Yes. Yes, it is, yeah.
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