17 January 2023

Riverina Rewind: The tragic triple drowning at North Wagga

| Chris Roe
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Wagga Beach

Wagga Beach has always been a popular swimming spot in summer. Photo: Wagga City Library.

As the Murrumbidgee River at Wagga returns to more swimmable heights, we look back to a tragic reminder from 70 years ago to treat the river with respect.

In January 1953, a woman watched helplessly from the banks as her husband and two children lost their lives in one of the city’s worst tragedies.

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It was an average Saturday afternoon when Kathleen McDonald, her husband Bob and their three children headed to North Wagga for a swim.

An eyewitness said the tragedy unfolded quickly after the family arrived at the quiet beach and six-year-old Robert struck out for the middle of the river.

He was almost immediately in trouble as he reached the fast-flowing currents and was swept downstream.

Bob and his daughters, 13-year-old Margaret and eight-year-old Fay, dived in to help but they too were caught up by the river and all four were struggling.

A nearby fisherman named John Croft joined the rescue and with great difficulty managed to reach the family and took hold of Fay.

He was forced to fight off the others who threatened to drag the pair under as they struggled to escape the current, and battled his way to shore with the eight-year-old.

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Leaving Fay with her mother on the beach, the heroic fisherman headed back out for the others but could find no sign of them in the ice-cold, six-metre-deep water.

As he collapsed exhausted on the beach, another man who was unable to swim jumped into Bob’s truck and “drove like mad” to raise the alarm.

Police rushed to the river and a call went out on 2WG for rescue club members to attend.

Two constables and eight club members were soon on site, taking turns diving underwater for about half an hour.

Hundreds of locals heard the call on the radio and flocked to the riverbank as the tragedy unfolded.

With hope fading, rescue turned to recovery and they dragged the riverbed with a pair of rescue boats before the bodies of the two children and their father were found.

Ambulance crews and rescuers made extensive efforts to resuscitate the swimmers, to no avail.

The distraught Kathleen and Fay were taken to Wagga Hospital and later released.

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To finish on a brighter note, in March 1929, The Land contained a short story celebrating the heroics of another boy named McDonald.

“Jack McDonald is a courageous Wagga Wagga boy, 12 years of age, who has twice saved boys from drowning,” the story reads.

“The last time he dived into the deep water of the Wollundry Lagoon, fully clothed, to rescue a schoolmate who had fallen in.”

The young hero was awarded the lifesavers’ bronze medallion for bravery.

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