Road was left open before family’s van plunged into river

AN inquest will examine why a road wasn't closed before a mother and her two children drowned in a flood tragedy on the state's north coast two years ago.

Stephanie King, 43, and two of her three children, Ella-Jane, 11, and Jacob, seven, died when their van skidded off a muddy road and plunged into the flood-swollen Tweed River at Tumbulgum on April 3, 2017.

River tragedy: Ella-Jane, Chloe-May and Jacob Kabealo.
River tragedy: Ella-Jane, Chloe-May and Jacob Kabealo.

Ms King's shattered husband Matt Kabealo fought back tears as the inquest at Byron Bay Court heard the nurse heroically sacrificed her life desperately trying to save their kids three days after ex-Cyclone Debbie caused record flooding in the area.

Counsel assisting Dr Peggy Dwyer told the court Ms King helped the couple's other child Chloe-May out of the submerged car's shattered window to safety, had unbuckled Ella-Jane's seatbelt and was trying to do the same for Jacob before she drowned.

Stephanie King and two of her children died when their car plunged into the flood-swollen Tweed River. Picture: Glenn Hampson
Stephanie King and two of her children died when their car plunged into the flood-swollen Tweed River. Picture: Glenn Hampson

"It is abundantly clear on the evidence that Stephanie had no thought for her own life and only tried to save her children," Dr Dwyer said in her opening address on Monday.

Chloe-May, then aged nine, managed to escape and raise the alarm but frantic rescuers were unable to save the three family members, the court heard.

"In an act that is extraordinary for a child of her age, Chloe managed to run to a house nearby to get help for her family," Dr Dwyer said.

Four people jumped into the fast flowing river at the site of the car's skid marks and dived down into the murky brown water searching in vain for the trio, the court heard.

"Those people kept trying until members of the ambulance and police arrived," Dr Dwyer said.

A devastated Matthew Kabealo after the tragic accident. Picture: Glenn Hampson
A devastated Matthew Kabealo after the tragic accident. Picture: Glenn Hampson

Mr Kabealo told police that "Stephanie was a cautious driver who would never put her children at risk", the court heard.

The inquest seeks to examine whether appropriate measures were taken by Tweed Shire Council to warn the public of the dangers of driving on the road or closing it.

"There was absolutely no doubt that Dulguigan Road was open to the public," Dr Dwyer said.

"There was undeniably a significant risk from the built up silt."

Mr Kabealo wrote in a police statement that his wife never would have driven down that road had there been any indication it was closed, the court heard.

An inquest will examine why the road wasn’t closed. Picture: Glenn Hampson
An inquest will examine why the road wasn’t closed. Picture: Glenn Hampson

"Safety is paramount, she enjoyed driving and it would not have bothered her one bit to backtrack down Cane Road and come home," he said.

Tweed Shire Council Roads and Storm Water manager Danny Rose is expected to tell the probe that 220 metres of guard rail have since been installed on the river side of Dulguigan Road, including at the crash site.

Dr Dwyer thanked Mr Kabealo, Ms King's sister Sarah and her brother John for attending the inquest, adding she couldn't imagine the sadness they've endured.

"Stephanie, Ella-Jane and Jacob died only two years ago and their family and this community is still struggling to deal with the enormity of their loss," she said.

The three-day inquest continues before Acting State Coroner Teresa O'Sullivan, who will hand down her findings at Murwillumbah Court on Friday.

Stephanie King with daughter Ella-Jane.
Stephanie King with daughter Ella-Jane.
Stephanie King died trying to save her children.
Stephanie King died trying to save her children.
Matthew Kabealo with his three children.
Matthew Kabealo with his three children.
Stephanie King sacrificed her life trying to save her children. Picture: Glenn Hampson
Stephanie King sacrificed her life trying to save her children. Picture: Glenn Hampson


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