King Fue spent the first 15 years of her life living beside the sea in Samoa, where she would swim with her brothers on most days in calm, protected bays.
Anton McMurray grew up in the mountains of the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne, but spent his summers surfing with his brother at the beaches along Victoria’s Great Ocean Road.
Last Monday, on January 25, these strangers found themselves grasping each other and gasping for air in a desperate fight for their lives as a ferocious ocean rip tried to drag them under and pull them further out to sea.
Around the nation, similar terrifying experiences have cast a pall over summer, with 40 people losing their lives in Australian beach tragedies since December 1, and many more being pulled from the sea close to death.
But much can be learned from the fateful encounter of King and Anton.
This is the story of how four siblings were rescued from the watery clutches of death by two brothers from another family, who risked their own lives to save them.
It is also the story of how a makeshift triage team of family, friends and other bystanders on the beach flew into action, helping from the shallows, administering lifesaving first aid and communicating with emergency services to give those pulled from the water a fighting chance.
In short, it is the inside story of how a day at the beach became a fight for life — and what it took to fend off tragedy.
King Fue doesn’t have many opportunities to visit the coast these days, as the 25-year-old flight attendant now lives in a housing estate in Melbourne’s far-northern suburbs.
So on Monday last week, King and her family were full of enthusiasm when they decided to make a spontaneous trip down the Great Ocean Road to Apollo Bay.
They had never been before, but had heard it was beautiful, so they packed a picnic and hit the road. Two and a half hours later, they arrived at Marengo, an unpatrolled beach west of Apollo Bay’s main swimming area.
King said that some family members, eager to feel the splash of salt water on their skin, rushed into the water while others set up the picnic under a shady tree.
Within moments, three members of King’s family — her brother Junior and sister Vaisaele, both 18, and her 14-year-old sister Agnes — were caught in a strong rip at the mouth of an estuary.
She instinctively rushed into the water to help them.
Within minutes they were all struggling to keep their heads above water as they were being swept out to sea.
By the end of the day, King’s siblings were in hospital and she was on her way home, in shock and exhausted.
If sculptor Anton McMurray, 47, and his brother Myron, 41, had not been nearby with their friends and family, that could very well have been the outcome for the Fue family last Monday.
It was soon after taking this photograph and making a video call to her brother to show him how beautiful the beach was, that King realised her siblings were not having fun in the water, as she had thought, but were actually in real trouble, struggling against a rip.
“All I wanted to do was to get in the water and save them,” King said.
“I got fabric so I could try and rope them in but the fabric wasn’t long enough, and then I was in the current.
“I said, ‘I can’t get to you but I need you to float’.”
King estimates her brother and sisters had been struggling in the water for about 10 minutes before she reached them. She had rushed into the water so quickly she was still wearing her dress, and it began to weigh her down.
“It was just the rip, no matter how hard we tried to come to shore it was just pushing us back,” King said.
Then, like a miracle, a group of bystanders — or “angels”, as King describes them — appeared on the beach.
As fate would have it, those “angels” had sufficient medical skills and surf-lifesaving knowledge to make it through the mammoth effort required to save King and her siblings.
But the ocean did not give in without a fearsome fight.
Anton and Myron McMurray, both strong swimmers, heard the Fue family’s calls for help and made a snap decision to attempt a rescue at the notorious Marengo rip.
Everyone knows the cruel irony that it is often the people who rush into raging surf to rescue others who end up drowning due to exhaustion.
Amid the frantic battle for survival unfolding just a few kilometres from one of Victoria’s most popular beaches, both the rescuers and those they were trying to save knew the odds of them all surviving were slim.
As the Fue and McMurray families and other beachgoers watched anxiously from shore, Anton and Myron ploughed through the ocean and reached Vaisaele and Agnes first.
Anton said they managed to pull the girls from the rip and get them back to the shallows, where their friends were waiting to carry the teenagers to shore.
Both girls were breathing but Vaisaele was unresponsive.
Friends and family of the McMurray brothers and other bystanders immediately used their lifesaving and nursing skills to administer first aid as they waited for an ambulance and lifesavers from Apollo Bay to arrive.
Rushing straight back out into the waves again, the brothers finally reached King and Junior, who by that stage were exhausted and incapable of keeping their heads above water.
A friend attempted to help with the rescue by using a stand-up paddle board but was unable to reach them in the rough conditions.
Anton took hold of King and Myron supported Junior. But as they all struggled, Anton and Myron realised they, too, were quickly running out of energy.
It was at this point, Anton said, that his training as a pool lifeguard really helped him to keep calm and make decisions during the chaos of the rescue.
“They were climbing on top of us and pushing us under, just to try to get a breath of air.
“Then of course we’re getting exhausted by that stage and I was really worried about my brother.
Back on shore, as Myron’s partner, a nurse, and others focused on trying to help the girls, Anton and Myron’s friends’ children realised that the brothers’ lives were now also in danger.
The children grabbed their boogie boards and alerted another adult in their group who was able to swim far enough out to skim the boards across the water to Myron and Junior.
“It was lucky that the kids thought we needed boogie boards, and they ran back and got them,” Anton said.
In the children’s swimming lessons, they had learned that boogie boards could be used to save people from drowning. That early life lesson proved crucial.
After Myron got Junior to shore, he returned with the boogie boards to help his brother.
Anton said that once King knew her siblings were safe, she remained calm despite her exhaustion and the terror of still being caught in the rip.
Eventually, in a last heroic effort to save King and themselves, the exhausted brothers used the boogie boards to “crash” onto some nearby rocks using the force of the waves to propel them.
“I stood back in disbelief.”
Anton said the whole rescue scene on the beach reminded him of a movie set, with everyone quick to act and pitch in.
Two nurses happened to be among those helping, including a local woman who is a critical care nurse.
“It was incredible everyone knew what to do,” he said.
“I’m an experienced surfer, my brother and I have both done surf-lifesaving.
“There [were] nurses amongst us and three of us had done workplace first aid.
He said it proved how important it was for people to make sure they had the basic skills to deal with emergencies, and that it was sheer luck that a team of people so well-equipped to deal with the situation happened to be on the beach at the time.
“We’re not heroes, we didn’t do anything amazing outside of taking opportunities that have been offered [such as] doing some first aid courses,” he said.
“If you like to go to the beach, you’ve learned how to swim and importantly, identify rips.
After emergency services arrived, Vaisaele was airlifted to Geelong Hospital and Junior and Agnes were taken to hospital in ambulances.
King’s family swapped contact details with the McMurrays and the families have kept in touch.
Anton said the “big, beautiful family” was gushing with tears and gratitude.
Anton said he hoped that speaking about last week’s incident would remind beachgoers that it was vital to learn how to safely navigate the ocean rather than be afraid of it.
“It’s not about fear, it’s a beautiful playground we come into contact with, it’s a wild place,” he said.
He said he supported a proposal from the Apollo Bay Surf Lifesaving Club to build a centre in the town dedicated to teaching people practical skills, including how to identify rips and how to enter the water safely.
At the time of the rescue, Apollo Bay volunteer lifeguard Thom Cookes, who helped to save the Fue family, said they had been swept out to sea “very, very quickly” by the notorious rip at Marengo.
King said her family members had all recovered now and were extremely grateful to be alive.
“We are very religious people,” she said.
“I believe we were given a second chance in life by God and he sent those angels that were on the beach to help us through our toughest time.”
She said the children in her family had said they would not swim in the ocean again.
“I told them they can still swim but we need to ask questions about where it’s safe to swim, especially at a new place,” King said.
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