A “heroic” mother who perished with two of her three children after their car plunged into a northern NSW river died trying to save her kids, police say.
Stephanie King, 43, was behind the wheel in the flood-ravaged town of Tumbulgum when the vehicle veered off the muddy Dulguigan Road and into Tweed River on Monday afternoon.
Her eight-year-old daughter Chloe May was somehow able to escape from the sinking vehicle but Ms King, her seven-year-old son Jacob and 11-year-old daughter Ella Jane drowned.
Tweed Byron Superintendent Wayne Starling said it was difficult to imagine the family’s pain.
“I’ve got no doubt whatsoever that that woman is a hero,” he told reporters in Tumbulgum on Tuesday.
“She’d be alive today if she wasn’t trying to save the children.”
Supt Starling described the conditions as “horrific” and said police had to hose down the slippery road before moving in a crane to retrieve the vehicle.
Four police divers from Sydney recovered the bodies on Tuesday afternoon and Supt Starling said many of the officers had children of a similar age to Ms King’s.
“We want those children and their mother treated with the respect they deserve,” he said.
The workplace of father Matt Kabealo, a chef at the Kingscliff Beach Bowls Club, has been quick to step in and organise financial help.
“Matt and Chloe are going to need a lot of support and we’re going to do what we can,” general manager Phillip Kelly said.
The club initiated a GoFundMe page and more than $10,000 was donated in three hours on Tuesday.
The local aged care service where Ms King worked also responded to the tragedy.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family of those involved in this tragic event,” Opal Aged Care managing director Gary Barnier said.
“This is also a very sad time for all employees at Opal and in particular at our Tweed Heads home where she worked. We are providing support and counselling for affected staff and residents”.
As news of the incident spread through the small town, locals including Pastor Rob Stuttle disputed claims the family was driving along a closed road.
He said the incident came just as the emotional toll of three days of mopping up was hitting exhausted residents.
Former police officer Matthew Grinham told of a frantic rescue effort on Monday afternoon, joining several others who dived into the freezing water of the Tweed and unsuccessfully tried to reach the car.
Ms King’s car was located several hours later on Monday with sonar equipment about five metres from the northern bank of the river.
Chloe May suffered scratches and cuts during her escape.
“She’s obviously traumatised by the incident,” Tweed Byron Chief Inspector Mick Dempsey said.
Tumbulgum, with a population of just 400, remains under evacuation orders, while SES crews complete Rapid Impact Assessments.
It’s the latest tragedy in a devastating few days for flood-ravaged northern NSW that has already claimed the lives of two women and a man.