THE mother of a man who, along with his two children, drowned at Tathra Wharf almost six years ago, says the council is still not hearing the community’s concerns about safety.
Linda O’Neill’s son Shane drowned in November 2008 after attempting to rescue his two young boys, who had fallen into the water off Tathra Wharf while fishing after dark.
The tragedy rocked the small community and the grief remains understandably sharp today.
Particularly as some believe the tragedy could have been averted if the wharf had a fence or safety barrier.
Ms O’Neill wrote a letter to the editor last week, which called on the council to take “responsible action that will prevent such an event happening again”.
“Council’s only focus has been on improving response time should an incident happen that requires a rescue,” she wrote.
“Relying on a rescue is not good enough – the real question of preventing an incident has been avoided.”
In an interview with ABC South East Radio’s Ian Campbell, Bega Valley Shire Mayor Bill Taylor sympathised with the O’Neill family’s grief, but said a fence was not being considered by the council at this stage.
“Any father or any parent with their children in that situation, you can’t comprehend how you would respond,” Cr Taylor said.
“Six years later and I still can’t comprehend how I, as a parent, would respond.”
Cr Taylor said the council adopted a risk assessment carried out by Australian Coastsafe, the safety management service of Surf Life Saving Australia, and implemented several measures, including the formation of a beach safety liaison committee.
He said other specific practical things that had been done were new and improved lighting and improved access from the water to the wharf, safety rings installed and an emergency button “to provide access to emergency information” when pressed.
However, when questioned about the push for a fence on the wharf and what was stopping council from installing one, Cr Taylor said there were arguments for and against.
“The wharf is potentially dangerous – as are many other places across the shire.”
“At what point do you barricade risk, or do you leave it up to an individual to say to themselves ‘I must take care of my own safety and the safety of those I’m responsible for’.
“Does a fence offer a false sense of security? I’m not answering that question, but the people who deal with these things at council and Surf Life Saving, who are experienced and professional…at this stage do not recommend a fence.”
While Cr Taylor has a point the report doesn’t “recommend” a fence, it does specifically mention the installation of safety barriers as a measure the BVSC “may wish to consider”, as well as offering suggested designs.
In part, the final report to council - issued in February 2010 and of which the BDN has a copy - reads:
“In response to recent tragedy and the increased safety concerns for the community Bega Valley Shire Council may wish to consider the introduction of safety barriers to the face of the wharves, including: The addition of a low level guard rail on the outer edge of the edge kerb/kickguard; and The continuation of the existing guardrail to include the entire outer edge of both wharves, except where there are extraction ladders.”
After the Mayor’s ABC Radio interview, Ms O’Neill said her push for a safety barrier at the wharf was far from over.
“I’m not really impressed - the council is still being reactive, not proactive,” she said.
“I’ve seen lots of children playing on the wharf and it freaks me out.
“I’ve also spoken to a lot of people who say they won’t take their children to the wharf because it isn’t safe.
“A fence won’t stop tourists from visiting – it may even encourage more –and it won’t stop people from fishing off the wharf.
“If there had been a fence, my grandson’s pram wouldn’t have gone in.
“It’s not all about kids either – it could be someone in a wheelchair.”
Mitigating risk to children
TATHRA resident and long-time proponent of a fence for the Tathra Wharf Paul Cozens also spoke with the BDN following Mayor Bill Taylor’s radio interview.
Mr Cozens has long advocated for a safety barrier at the wharf and for details of the CoastSafe report to be made public.
“There are no perfect controls, I would be the first to admit this,” Mr Cozens said.
“Some people will go to any amount of trouble to defeat a guard such as a fence and this has to accepted as a possibility.
It is all about mitigating risk and not about eliminating risk - there is always some residual risk.
“The question I would ask is about the mitigating of risk to children.
“Children do not have the same level of awareness to danger and risk as adults.
“The ethics of saying it is a matter of parental responsibility troubles me terribly.”