Hours clinging to husband in sea: Terror of Ada 50 years on

FIFTY years on from the terror of Cyclone Ada, Kaye Cronan still has vivid memories of being buffeted around in the rolling ocean for hours, hanging on to her husband, cuts all over her body, not knowing if they'd survive after their boat sunk.

The category 3 cyclone was one of the worst to ever hit the region, killing 14 people and wreaking havoc with wind gusts up to 220 kms/hr, crossing the coast near Shute Harbour late on Saturday, January 17, and causing considerable damage from the high winds and subsequent flooding, on Sunday, January 18.

Mrs Cronan, who was 23 when the cyclone hit in 1970, remembers it all clearly, and was nearly a statistic herself, had she not been dragged from the water by a crew of men who had commandeered a boat and were looking for survivors.

At the time, she and her 27-year-old husband of just six weeks, Graham Mee, a skipper, lived on their boat, which was the vessel for Daydream Island, ferrying guests to and from Shute Harbour.

Devastation on Daydream Island where the tourist resort was virtually wiped out by Cyclone Ada on January 18, 1970. This aerial image shows all guest accommodation smashed and only the main hall standing (bottom right). About 140 guests were evacuated after the cyclone, which hurled debris, smashed glass, tore down buildings, and stripped trees of their foliage. Picture: Barry Pascoe.
Devastation on Daydream Island where the tourist resort was virtually wiped out by Cyclone Ada on January 18, 1970. This aerial image shows all guest accommodation smashed and only the main hall standing (bottom right). About 140 guests were evacuated after the cyclone, which hurled debris, smashed glass, tore down buildings, and stripped trees of their foliage. Picture: Barry Pascoe.

 

It was just the two of them, their sixteen-year-old deckhand Billy Liddell, and a man called Bill Howden, 73, who ran the onboard bar, when the cyclone hit.

"The other crew members had gone home to be with their families and we had dropped the passengers back at Shute Harbour, so they could get out of the area before it hit," Kaye said.

"The warnings in those days weren't too specific and we thought we'd sit it out on the boat.

"So we battened down the boat on the mooring and nothing much seemed to be happening - we cooked a roast dinner - and it was probably about 8pm or 9pm when we heard a roar, and from then on, we were just trying to keep everything on the boat."

Mrs Cronan said the mooring and anchors on their 35-metre boat seemed to hold until the small hours of the morning.

"The winds abated and then we realised we were in the eye of the cyclone," she said.

"So we tied ropes where the boat railings had been - they had flown off - and waited for it to come back. When it did, it came back with much more force and the wind was coming from the land side.

"The reports had said that the cyclone had abated and gone out to sea. It was rather confusing, they didn't have much of a fix on it, they said it wasn't much to worry about."

 

Clem Hill's house in Marathon Street, January 1970 after Cyclone Ada.
Clem Hill's house in Marathon Street, January 1970 after Cyclone Ada.

 

Mrs Cronan and her husband were unable to control the boat and it was dragging the anchor.

"The wind held the boat over and we took quite a lot of water on the boat. We came up, almost upright, but the next gust took it down again and the motor ceased.

"So the boat was on its side with surf breaking over it and we had to try to escape. The deckhand was on the deck - he managed to jump in a hatch just in time to escape the water.

"Graham tried to save Bill, who was in the galley, but we found him face down in the water - we found out later he'd had a heart attack.

"I was pushed through a window and I realised if I was taken down again, I wouldn't come back up, so I hung on to the broken window and was badly cut in the process. I almost severed my hamstring when part of a metal tank hit me in the water."

Graham and Kaye survived in the turbulent waters for some hours, possibly four hours, but Kaye finds it hard to recollect.

"We hung on to each other in the water. We had lightening dancing around us, which was terrifying.

"It's hard to tell how long we were in there - you don't think about it at the time because you are focusing on surviving. Lots of wreckage was colliding with us. Day was breaking but because of the water conditions, we couldn't really tell.

"We were being pushed along by the current and eventually we were washed up on shore, on the eastern point of Cape Conway, on a steep rocky bank.

Tourists from South Molle Island arriving at Mackay on a cruise boat after Cyclone Ada. Picture: Bob Nicol
Tourists from South Molle Island arriving at Mackay on a cruise boat after Cyclone Ada. Picture: Bob Nicol

 

"Some men had to haul me out the water and they laid me in the bush, on the ground, which was still wet, and the green ants had a feed of me."

The boat's life raft had also drifted to shore, containing medical supplies, basic food and water.

"That's what really saved us. Graham was able to give me morphine, which slowed my heart down and probably saved my life.

"We got into the life raft and sheltered from the storm and all fell asleep, as we were exhausted."

The storm was still raging but Graham managed to climb to a higher point and let off the flares from the life raft. Eventually, a boat came to rescue them and took them to Shute Harbour.

"The ambulance couldn't get there because of the conditions but someone living in the area sent their station wagon down to the wharf with a mattress in the back, and we went to Proserpine. The driver had to keep getting out and moving stuff off the road."

When they reached Myrtle Creek, they had to be ferried across by boat, and finally met the ambulance about halfway across Hamilton Plains.

"When we got to the hospital, the power was out and they were having trouble getting the generator going. The men's ward was flooded and they were trying to move all the men.

"I was taken to surgery straight away and was operated on with a nurse holding a hurricane lamp. They stitched me up - both arms and both feet were cut, and a few cuts on my face and head."

Mrs Cronan ended up spending two months in Proserpine Hospital - her wounds didn't heal well as she'd spent so much time in the water - and because of her almost severed hamstring, she spent a month in Townsville Hospital, where they tried to correct her foot.

When it was all over, the pair had obviously lost their livelihood, so they went north, working on boats in Townsville and the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Today, Kaye lives on acreage in Bloomsbury, with her second husband, who she married in 2008.

Cyclone Ada will be commemorated with a special service, and a memorial in honour of its victims, on the 50th anniversary, on Saturday, January 18, 2020.

The Cyclone Ada Memorial Committee is made up of people who experienced the trauma of the cyclone and feel it is an important event in the region's history that should be recognised and recorded for future generations.

Following the dedication of the memorial, at 2pm on the Airlie Foreshore, there will be an informal gathering and a book launch of 'Cyclone Ada - A Community Remembers' at the Reef Gateway Hotel, Cannonvale, at 3pm. The book contains about 100 stories from people who went through the cyclone.

For more information please call committee secretary Kaye Cronan on 4947 5890 or email cronankaye@gmail.com.