‘Holy shit! That’s not supposed to happen hey, it’s not part of a show or anything?’
This was the panicked sentence that came out of the mouth of the 50-something year old man that stood next to me as we exited the Penguin Encounter enclosure at Seaworld on the Gold Coast.
Our eyes and brains still not comprehending what we had just witnessed, the man and I, along with my 2-year-old daughter in her pram and about 7 other people, ran the short distance up the hill and slammed ourselves against the fence. What lie in front of us in the distance, is the most horrific thing I have ever seen.
My family and I hadn’t been on a holiday for a really long time. When COVID hit, it’s like we, along with many others, pressed pause on our lives outside of our communities and even outside of our own 4 walls.
But 2022 felt good. The masks came down and more and more people peered around the corners before deciding it was safe enough to join the world again. Having two girls and being able to work from home, my husband and I hadn’t really taken a breath all year, so we jumped at the kindness of a friend to spend some time at her vacant rainforest paradise in Byron Bay for a week.
Here, we relaxed, refreshed, and rejuvenated, all the while connecting with our girls on a deeper level and learning to enjoy doing things together again without the rules and claustrophobia the past few years had thrust upon us.
But then their small souls got restless. They wanted some manufactured adventure, to end their holiday with the bubbling of jellyfish and the roaring of rollercoaster laughter. Rates were through the roof and there was only one room left at the famed Seaworld Resort. Looking back, this should have been a sign that this little adventure should have perhaps been postponed.
After some wonderful debate skills from our 11-year-old, we caved, snapping that last room up and making our way to the place where marine dreams come true, Seaworld on the Gold Coast.
Over the next 2 days we marvelled at everything the park has to offer, ending our balmy Monday session at the park separated – my husband and eldest daughter going to fight the long lines for the rides, my youngest babe and I going to visit her favourite animal in the world.
As we entered the Penguin Encounter building, two things struck me: 1) it was way too hot for my liking and 2) it was overly crowded. But my little one hadn’t been able to see the large emperor penguins yet so we forged ahead and made our way through.
I often find myself wondering if what I experienced mentally following the collision would be different if my choice inside that enclosure was different. You see, there are two levels inside, the bottom level allows you to view the penguins swimming from underneath, the top level then affording you an amazing view of the penguins front on in all their glory.
We watched the penguins swim from below and then made our way up the ramp where we were greeted with what felt like a hundred like-minded tourists, 5 rows deep in penguin love. As I mentioned earlier, the building was jam-packed and I wasn’t keen to wait around for people to push their way past us so that we could inch our way forward to the glass. So we left.
I can’t help myself from thinking that I should have lingered just 2 minutes longer, that I should have been more patient. But I wasn’t, and that’s a decision that will be forever playing on repeat in my mind.
Instead, I pushed my daughter in her pram back down the ramp, straight out of the back exit and into the welcome summer breeze. It was then that, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of the most beautiful slice of sky imaginable, the perfect wedge between buildings. What happened next went so quickly.
Interrupting the serenity was a helicopter, and it appeared to have clipped something which then simply dropped out of the sky. What ensued next was the most awful bang I have ever heard, followed by a mess of spiralling for the helicopter, which had now come a mere 20-30m from my daughter and I. And then it disappeared. That’s when I heard the man beside me speak. Looking at him, eyes wide, we ran, as if by instinct, up the small hill.
Fingers laced through the fence, I slammed the break on my daughter’s pram and peered out to the distant waterway and saw it. An insanely deep hole in the sandbank, the rotors of a helicopter peeking out the top. What we didn’t know at the time, was that the helicopter hadn’t actually landed in a hole, it had hit the sandbank, broken in pieces and fallen on its side. What we also didn’t know until later, was that what we saw clip the helicopter near the penguins, was actually another helicopter, this helicopter, laying in its sand grave with 4 deceased people on board.
The spiralling copter awkwardly landed, but this wasn’t the most impressive thing I witnessed that day. No, it was the distant onslaught of human kindness. The people who rushed in from the water, off their boats, to help someone who needed someone. The Seaworld first aid staff who barrelled across the park, swamped in equipment. The sounds of sirens in what felt like only minutes from the time of impact.
But amongst all this goodwill and restored faith in humanity, much of what I wouldn’t learn about until much later, I also witnessed the faces of complete loss. A young man and lady, running down the path in front of the fence, announcing that their family were on that plane. A man, silent but rushing loudly to a Seaworld staff member, her face dropping when the man seemingly shared who he was, ushering him down the hill to where the helipad was located. And a woman, I will never forget this woman; face twisted with something that could only be described as pure pain. Her tears were coming so thick and fast that she had to be carried out and away as if to help shield her from her realisations.
I was shocked, so much so that I just stood there, watching it all unfold. I called my husband on the other side of the park and told him what had happened. He texted my mum and told her what happened. I got a news alert on my phone from Facebook, advising that two helicopters had collided outside of Seaworld and 3 people were confirmed dead.
I froze, the reality sinking in that I had just watched people fall to their death. That another man who was beside me at the penguins who said he had just narrowly missed being hit in the head by something flying in the sky after the big bang, had in fact almost been struck by rotor shrapnel. This man was right next to me. Right next to my daughter. We could have been hit. The helicopter, mere metres away from the penguins could have landed on us, could have plunged into the enclosure, and killed hundreds of people, including us.
It sounds silly, but I feel, in some way, that I cheated death that day, that it wasn’t my time just yet, that I was being afforded another chance to do good, to be good. But in turn, this makes me feel incredibly guilty.
Standing outside of the Jellyfish exhibit, I cried. And as the tears streamed down my face, my husband hugging me, I did something I didn’t expect to do, I opened Instagram.
In a manner of swiftness, I typed up and posted a quick note to my friends explaining what I had just seen and that I was praying for all involved. This was the start of an obsession that would see me hit rock bottom emotionally but ultimately lead me onto a path of healing.
Working in cyber safety education, I see the worst of what the world can do online. I have offered words of comfort to kids who have been cyberbullied, worked alongside schools to help protect their staff, I have delved into a parent’s trauma and worst fears following accusations of rape against their child. This stuff isn’t easy, this stuff hits home. But it’s the Seaworld collision that brought down my walls of resilience and allowed my heart to completely break in half.
While I expected to find a way to work through what I was feeling and how it was affecting me, I never expected the remedy to be social media.
That very afternoon of the collision, I was glued to my phone, refreshing my search for updates on the incident. As time wore on, the details of what unfolded came out and what was and is going to be a long road to determine how it all happened began.
I didn’t sleep at all that night, visions of what I saw and the details I knew swirling in my head. On the drive home the following day, 7News Brisbane messaged me asking for an interview. I wasn’t interested. My husband reminded me to check in with him, that I didn’t need to deal with anything alone. My boss and colleague offered words of wisdom, to take the time to process it all, to be kind to myself, to go and see someone if I felt like I was drowning.
Both my mum and husband were concerned about my sudden extensive use of social media. They thought that by keeping myself up to date with everything related to the accident, that I was somehow enabling the grief to continue, allowing myself to spiral deeper. I found however, that it was doing the exact opposite.
I was able to sift through the bullshit, counter the opinions of media outlets who weren’t present with actual facts. I silently laughed at the people who injected themselves into the narrative through hollow interviews and confirm my feelings through the pain of those whose worlds has stopped.
I wanted to know how the victims in hospital were recovering, who the pilot was, even watch the video footage taken by bystanders. I was able to stay up to date in a way that made me feel connected and it all somehow helped me process the event with clarity. The biggest thing it did, however, was allow me to bathe myself in the absolute humility and love of the people who helped that day. The people who don’t wear a uniform, who don’t have medical training, just simply have big hearts and jumped into action as if their own lives depended on it.
Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, all of these platforms posted a lot of shit, but they also shared the beautiful stories from those on the ground and those who loved the lost. It’s these stories that I have grabbed onto with no sight of letting go any time soon.
The deep feelings of sadness and grief sat inside of me for almost two weeks. I felt numb, devoid of the typical feelings of contentedness that I usually exuberated. I also felt silly, silly that I had such deep empathy and emotion toward people I didn’t even know. But slowly, I came back to myself. Not forgetting what had happened, but rather understanding it.
Whilst I scold social media channels for allowing inappropriate, harmful content to be filtered through to our kids and for giving those people with dangerous views a platform, I also have a lot to thank them for because without them, I’m not sure where I would my head would be right now.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR, RIKKI:
With over 20 years experience in media, advertising and sales, Rikki is the driving force behind forming strong and profitable relationships between Safe on Social and our valued partners.