The Landslide and the Incredible Rescue, 25 Years Later

Thousands of tons of dirt and debris slid down the hill and crashed into a four-story ski club lodge, which then hit the Bimbadeen Staff Lodge.

Eighteen people were killed in the darkness and freezing cold.

The front page of the Sydney Morning Herald the day after the landslide.
The front page of the Sydney Morning Herald the day after the landslide. (Nine)

Hours later, a 21-year-old radio journalist was fast asleep after a drunken goodbye drink with colleagues in Canberra.

“I was fast asleep when I got a call to get to Thredbo ASAP,” Ben Fordham told nine.com.au.

“I had no information as to why I needed to get there, but I was told that there were a huge number of emergency vehicles on their way to Thredbo.”

After drinking too much to drive, Fordham started a “crazy ring around” for someone who could drive. Finally, he and three others got into a car and made the early morning journey.

Ben Fordham was a 21-year-old reporter in Canberra when the Thredbo landslide occurred.
Ben Fordham was a 21-year-old reporter in Canberra when the Thredbo landslide occurred. (Ben Fordham)

A police roadblock kept all media out of Thredbo.

But Fordham managed to get in before all the other reporters, telling a police officer he was heading to higher ground for better cell phone reception.

From there, he sprinted into the darkness, only to be picked up by a local waiting for him.

“When the sun came up the next morning, I was the only journalist who was able to describe what we saw,” said Fordham.

“It was surreal because it didn’t look real. It looked like something you would see in a movie.

“It looked like a giant that had been slammed into the side of a mountain. And you could see there were chalets and other buildings and vehicles that were all damaged and displaced.”

Ben Fordham was just 21 when he was sent to cover the Thredbo landslide.
Ben Fordham was just 21 when he was sent to cover the Thredbo landslide. (Ben Fordham)

Emergency services were frantically trying to determine how to begin the search for possible survivors without triggering another landslide.

“I think what I struggled most with was the idea that there were people under all that rubble,” Fordham said.

“It seemed to me that there was no way anyone in the world could survive.”

Rescuers check debris after the Thredbo landslide.
Rescuers check debris after the Thredbo landslide. (Dean Sewell)

It was a very shocking experience for a 21-year-old journalist, along with the community and family or friends of the victims.

“It was absolutely terrifying to think that people were fast asleep in the middle of the night, next to their loved ones.

“And then God knows what happened next. They must have heard a sound. The ground must have started to move. And before you know it, their whole lives have slipped away.’

The media were kept at bay while the dig took place, but Fordham remembered what he saw through the lens of a camera.

“I remember seeing a body move, and it was clear to me that the body was frozen solid,” he said.

“So there was no way in the world in my mind that anyone would get out of there alive.”

Later that day, a more senior journalist from 2UE had arrived and Fordham thought it was time to leave.

“I probably suffered a bit of trauma, to be honest,” he said.

“God knows what the friends and families involved were going through.”

In a phone call that evening, Fordham’s father urged him to stay in Thredbo.

“I said they take out frozen bodies. There’s no one alive under there. And I feel like I have to go,” Fordham said.

The next morning Fordham woke up early and turned on the local radio station.

A thumbs up from rescuers offered a sign that someone was alive in the rubble.
A thumbs up from rescuers offered a sign that someone was alive in the rubble. (Dallas Kilponen)

A local politician had called to report that noises had been heard beneath the wreckage.

Fordham called Sydney and brought the news to the nation.

“My boss called me and said, ‘You better be right about this,'” he said.

“There is nothing worse than false hope.

“I remember having this horrible, empty feeling about the possibility that the noise underneath might have been caused by something else.”

Rescuers retrieve Stuart Diver from the rubble of the Thredbo landslide.
Rescuers retrieve Stuart Diver from the rubble of the Thredbo landslide. (Nick Moir)

When Fordham arrived at the command post, he was told what had happened at 5:37 that morning.

Diver was not injured by the landslide, trapped between three concrete slabs.

Stuart Diver and was pulled from the rubble three days after the landslide.
Stuart Diver and was pulled from the rubble three days after the landslide. (Supplied: SCAT Paramedics)

His wife Sally Diver, who had slept next to him, was trapped under their headboard in a depression. When the depression was filled with water overnight, she drowned.

Stuart Diver stood right next to his wife, but his desperate attempts to save her were unsuccessful.

He spent the next two and a half days under the rubble in his underwear, as icy water streamed past.

Sixty-five hours after the landslide, Diver was rescued and suffered only frostbite.

“We must not forget that so many people died and so many families were heartbroken that day,” Fordham said.

“But I think they would all understand the joy we felt when we realized Stuart was going to get out of there.”

Fordham would win a Walkley Award and a Award that year for his coverage of the landslide from Thredbo — the youngest reporter to do so.

But the impact of covering such devastation stuck with him.

“Months later I was in the pub in Sydney with some friends and they all took to the dance floor,” he said.

“I sat there alone and I just started crying.

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“I think this was the first time I allowed myself to understand what I had seen and what I had experienced, because the moment you’re in the middle of it, you don’t really have the opportunity to sit back and think about the whole thing.

“And I was just a spectator. So God knows what it would have been like for the families and friends of those involved, let alone Stuart.”

It was later determined that leaking water pipes that softened the ground had caused the landslide.

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