By Gerry Georgatos – “They took my boy’s body away. I wanted to go with my son. They left us behind. They didn’t care to listen.”
“They just looked at us. They flew off, right in our faces.”
“They left us behind.”
“They just left us,” said mother, Gwen Sturt.
Through the night, with torrid rains pelting the roof of a remote community home, a family grieved at the loss of a son, a grandson, a brother, a boyfriend, an uncle. The 24-year-old Troy Carter dragged his 20-year-old brother’s body out of a creek. Six hours later his body would be cared for by his family for the subsequent 18 hours – by the mother and grandmother. Though the young man had passed away long before any chance of saving him, his family shone lights on him all night long.
“They wanted to care for him,” said an uncle, Cameron Sturt.
But all night long, Troy’s six-year-old son, Robert, asked again and again, “What’s wrong with uncle?”
“Why is uncle like that?”
Early January 2015, I assisted in guiding the family to safety. I published their story online days later, January 16, 2015. Two years later the ABC carried their harrowing story. Another two years later, the tragedy was one of 13 suicides of children and youth of the Kimberley investigated by State Coroner.
The Kimberley has the nation’s highest Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander suicide rate and high rates of premature and unnatural death rates. I first disaggregated the region’s suicide rate as highest in the nation, November 2014, seven times the national suicide rate. Over the last decade I have become closely involved with the Kimberley and its peoples – researching the extreme poverty that grinds side by side with affluence; the extensive homelessness, and sadly so the racialism and racism.
I was contacted by distraught relatives of this family who saw only racism. The Kimberley has one of the world’s highest suicide rates. I do not have to belabour the statistical narratives; we all know them. Coupled with the horrific premature and unnatural death rates, the Kimberley is a catastrophic nightmare for too many of its First Peoples. What underwrites all this, well in my view it is the racism and this tragedy has racism’s dirty prints all over it.
The Kimberley has a total population close to 45,000 of which the First Peoples comprise around 18,000 residents. However, the Kimberley is a tale of two peoples – of Black and White. It is a tale of racialism and racism. The significations should never be underplayed and most certainly should never be denied. The affluent tourist mecca Kimberley divides its social wealth. If you are non-Aboriginal, you are more than likely to be doing quite well but if you are an Aboriginal person you are certainly more than likely to be doing it very tough.
It is advised that researchers and journalists should not publish how someone may have taken their life as it may lead to a contagion effect – ‘copycat’ suicides. I do not agree. Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander communities may not know why one of their loved ones took their life, but they always know how – and without exception everyone knows whether it is published or not. In fact, nearly 100 per cent of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander suicides are by some form of hanging.
We are advised against telling the stories of the lost. Without truth in its raw ordeal we often go backwards while sometimes the only forward steps are small ones.
At about 4:30pm on the first Monday in the bloom of the new year 2015, the 20-year-old young man suicided. The family had left Halls Creek for Wungu; for several days downtime on a bush block they owned at the community. Wungu is 70 kilometres from Halls Creek.
The monsoonal rains came in and soon flooded all the roads leading out of Wungu. Not long before taking his life, the young man and his girlfriend had bogged the car they were driving not too far from the bush property. After a while they walked off and then they argued. The young man decided to return to the car for water. A little later his girlfriend went looking for him.
She eventually found him by a tree near a creek. She rushed back to the house screaming.
According to the uncle – Cameron – the family phoned the police.
“The police told them because of the rains they could not get there till the next morning. This was unbelievable. I don’t understand how the chopper couldn’t fly in immediately. The police told them they would be there probably 9am in the morning.”
“The police gave them advice but what good is advice. They needed help immediately. They needed a response.”
A devastated brother and girlfriend went looking for him. Disoriented in the fast approaching dark, and each step at least ankle high in mud, the girlfriend and Troy took more than an hour to find the tree. With the monsoonal weather, it was soon dark.
They found the tree, but the young man was not there. There was a broken branch and a belt tied to it. His body slid into the creek. Troy waded into the creek looking for his brother. In the dark, he found him, bringing him back.
“Troy tried to carry his brother’s body back to the house, but he was sinking knee deep in mud. He went back to the house on his own and got a wheelbarrow,” said Cameron.
“He tried to bring his brother back in the wheelbarrow. Can you imagine the grief?”
“But no matter how he manoeuvred the barrow, he got bogged.”
“Distraught, grieving, he ran back to the house.”
“This time a couple of them returned with a bed – a single bunk bed.”
“It breaks me to know what they went through. It breaks me for the boy’s mum, for his little nephew, for everyone. It shouldn’t have been this way.”
“They placed his body on the bed. In the mud, the slush, the rains, they carried the bed, dragged it at times, brought him back,” said Cameron, choking back cries.
Cameron lives in Derby. Once the family had called him from Wungu about what they were going through he was onto the police.
“It took them more than six hours after finding his body in the water to get him to the house,” said Cameron.
“I was on the phone with Gwen (the mum) during the moments they finally arrived at the house. It was ten minutes past midnight. I’ll never forget her cries, her pain as she said, ‘they are just coming through the gates now’.”
“I have no problem with most people, but I don’t understand why the police couldn’t get a chopper in despite rain and all.”
“They kept his body under lights all night. The little fella he was asking all night long ‘what’s wrong with uncle?’”
“I didn’t know what else to do but go out there and rescue them. They were also out of food, supplies and diesel. They were trapped by the flooded roads. Power was done and they were powering everything with the generator.”
“My 18-year-old son, Ty, and I, we left Derby by four-wheel and we drove for more than eight hours through heavy rains to Halls Creek.”
“The police and rescue services weren’t going in. We couldn’t leave them there. It can’t be this business of Blackfellas will be right.”
“Can you imagine this struggle of theirs in the rains, in the mud, in the dark, all alone?”
It is 550 kilometres from Derby to Halls Creek and usually six hours of driving but with the rains and the dark it took much longer.
“The police landed the chopper, a ten-minute flight from Halls Creek, at the property. But the girlfriend had gone wandering. The police spent half a day flying around looking for her. Gwen and everyone were at the house with my nephew’s body. When they found her, they took her to Halls Creek and then came back.”
“It was about 5pm when they took my nephew’s body. But they didn’t take Gwen with him who wanted to go with her son. They left everyone behind distraught, grieving, at a total loss, and by now they had run out of supplies and food. The family were devastated, shell shocked.”
“They didn’t understand why they weren’t airlifted.”
Gwen said to me that she begged the police to take her with them and to take the family out.
“I begged them, crying that they take us with them. I should have gone with my boy. They just took him. They said that they were under instructions to take out only my boy and his girlfriend.”
“They said the State Emergency Services would send a chopper in soon enough. They flew off right in my face. I was crying and screaming. It was like they were slapping us in the face.”
Cameron said that the police stated they would contact the State Emergency Services to organise a rescue chopper from Kununurra. But the chopper never came.
“They were 24 hours there with the boy’s body, grieving. Can you imagine what it would have been like in that house for all them? And they were left there in that despair? Would this happen if they were White? How can we not ask this question?”
“I called them off a satellite phone and told them despite the flooded roads I would drive the four-wheel as far as I could, to the turnpike 18 kilometres from the property. I told them that they should walk there through the mud and meet me but not to get it wrong because once they left the house, they would be out of phone range.”
“My sister (Jeanette Swan) who lives in Halls Creeks asked her boss for the troop carrier, and he was good and gave it to her to rescue the family. Jeanette followed me and Ty. But you know, to get there we had to drive through the floods. The water was above our bonnets. It was crazy but we had no choice, we couldn’t leave them out there.”
Gwen said that her son Troy phoned the Emergency Services several times during the day.
“Troy talked to the Emergency Services during the day, but nothing happened. We asked them to pick us up and drop us off at the turnoff which was 18 kilometres away so we could meet Cameron. When they said they couldn’t our hearts sank.”
“They said they would call back, but hours went by.”
“We couldn’t wait any longer, so we walked before it got dark to meet Cameron,” said Gwen.
The family walked through the mud for hours and reached the waiting Cameron, Ty and Jeanette.
Cameron said, “The health services should have come out with us to meet them and tend to them immediately, but they didn’t.”
I called the personal mobile of former Senator Nigel Scullion, the then Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, and asked him to help. Nigel immediately organised for health and ‘standby’ services to attend. They did.
“They were in shock, a mix of distraught and quiet, trauma everywhere,” said Cameron.
“We brought them back to Halls Creeks where the health people took care of their wounds, helped them and others fed them.”
I cannot but beg to ask how all this could be allowed to occur subsequent a suicide. This isn’t the 1920s, where this tale could be contextually imaginable. It was 2015.
The then Halls Creek Healing Taskforce stalwart and chair of the local Aboriginal Medical Services, Donna Smith was appalled. Ms Smith spent the whole day by the family’s side after Cameron, Ty and Jeanette brought them to Halls Creek. Ms Smith who organised for the medical services to respond immediately to the family’s immediate needs once they arrived in Halls Creek.
“Gerry, I and the health mob here would like Minister Scullion to find out why, formally, why the police and the DFES did not bring the family out of Wungu and into Halls Creek. The police are giving us conflicting information. I spoke to the Acting Police Superintendent who said to me the family never asked to escort the boy’s body.”
“The Superintendent told me that the police notified DFES at 1:15pm on Tuesday, the day after the boy’s death.”
“I responded to the Superintendent that if a direction came from the police office that they couldn’t take out the family then why did the police wait so late to notify the DFES. There has been no response to this question.”
“Gerry, I am devastated for them. You know, if there is a flood, a bushfire, a natural disaster with White communities, rightly so there are huge public, media and Government responses. The army gets called in. All the services respond immediately and there is even sometimes international support because of the blanket media coverage. People get rescued from whatever conditions. Donation appeals go out and donations flood in. But when it’s Black families in trouble where is the response?”
“Things have to change or more of our people will suffer needlessly, continue to live racism, die prematurely. It should not have taken a phone call from you to the Minister to get a response. Response and resources should occur without delay. What are we? Do we not count?”
“We have begged for support for our people in this part of the country. Our people need real hope,” said Ms Smith.
“What will that little six-year-old boy think as he grows up?”
The family was staunchly supported by Kija State parliamentarian, Josie Farrer, who herself lost a grandchild to suicide and who hails from Halls Creek. The relentless advocate of her people, Ms Farrer, cried as we spoke at length about what had occurred.
“What this family went through in one way or another many of our families go through. They are treated different, forgotten. It is still a Black and White divide. You and I both know this. I cannot believe it each time something like this happens even though it happens in one way or another again and again.”
“How much pain must our people endure?”
“Our people are treated as less.”
“This family has lost a son, a grandson, a brother and on top of this devastating grief they are shattered with more pain.”
“The police and the emergency services do have to explain why they didn’t respond immediately. The police should explain why they didn’t take the family out of Wungu.
“It should not have come down to Cameron and his son driving through the night from Derby to rescue everyone.”
“And what to from here? You know there’s no such thing really as standby services and grief support. When I lost my grandchild, there was no support for the family from any service. These standby services are a myth. We are just forgotten.”
The suicides crises hurting this nation have their fundamentals but nevertheless demographically, geopolitically, psychosocially and ‘racially’ they are different. I am exhausted by the statistics and reasons. The hostile denials and selfish justifications are killing people. This tragedy lost someone dear to many but what this tragedy said to me is that this nation is steeped in deep racism. Many are blinded to their racism and the racialism, but it is there.
We must never forget Cody Carter and his family – or his 60 year old grandmother, Sandra Sturt, or his 39 year old mother Gwen Sturt, or his 24 year old brother Troy Carter, or his six year old nephew, Robert Carter, or his girlfriend, nor Cameron Sturt, Ty Sturt, Donna Smith and Josie Farrer.
The Inspector of the Kimberley Police told the Coroner’s Inquest that there was a decision “that the family would not be evacuated by the Western Australian Police, nor would police facilitate a resupply of essential items to the community.”
The Inspector “determined that this was the responsibility of the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES).”
Police contacted the DFES at 1pm on January 6 and advised them of the tragedy at Wungu. But the DFES advised there were no available helicopters that day.
Both the Police and the DFES charter planes and helicopters from Helispirit at Kununurra. Seageant Simone Taplin told the Coroner, “We should have made an attempt to bring them back…”
“…we should have brought them back. However, the decision was made not to bring them back.”
- Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention and poverty researcher. He is also the national coordinator of the National Suicide Prevention & Trauma Recovery Project.
- Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78; Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636.