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Calls for action on Fitzroy River crossing after second man drowns

Giovanni Torre -

Story updated at 4:30pm Monday 27 February.

A 20 year-old man has drowned in Martuwarra/Fitzroy River after attempting to swim across it Sunday afternoon.

On Monday morning WA Police Force said the young man was with two other people when about 3:30pm Sunday he entered the river, near the Fitzroy River Lodge.

Locals told National Indigenous Times the group was attempting to swim to the other side of the river to return to their community west of Fitzroy Crossing. The bridge across the river was severely damaged during the massive flooding last month and is not useable.

It is understood one of the group was rescued by staff from the Fitzroy River Lodge.

Fitzroy Crossing Police attended the scene and with the assistance of two vessels from Fitzroy River Lodge and two local helicopters a search of the area was commenced.

"The ground and air search is continuing this morning… with the addition of DFES State Emergency Service (SES) volunteers who are deploying a search vessel," a Police spokesperson said.

The young man's father and staff from the Fitzroy River Lodge had continued searching throughout Monday and found his body late in the afternoon. After he was found they called the police who attended the scene.

On 10 February a 40 year-old man went missing and was later found to have drowned in the river.

Earlier on Monday, Marra Worra Worra Aboriginal Corporation chair Peter Murray told National Indigenous Times the community was deeply saddened by the events.

"First I would like to send my condolences to the family of the person missing and to the family who lost someone a couple of weeks ago in the river," he said.

"I have lived in the Fitzroy community all my life and we the floods inside out, and one thing not to do is swim in the river, the water flow is extreme, especially at this level just a couple of metres off the bridge. Now that the bridge has been broken, damaged, by the flood… it is hard to put into words now we have lost two of our mob, our community members, especially the youth."

Mr Murray said there had been "many meetings" over the challenges the Valley is facing.

"We had the army, all these organisations in Fitzroy trying to come together and work as one to deal with the situation and not taking too long in this situation. We have the short term recovery and the long term recovery to deal with.

"One priority was to look at access east to west and vice versa across the river. WE still have traffic coming in from Fitzroy Valley and elsewhere in the country, people trying to travel. It is very difficult with the bridge broken.

"For all of our mob who lives on the east side trying to get into town to do food shopping and personal things like banking, or for their health, it has been very hard."

Mr Murray said the situation was very difficult and unfair for people without access to a boat or dingy.

"We have had meetings with DFES, the army, community members. There has been discussion of putting in barges but on the west side there has been too much delay."

He said decision-making had been hampered by insufficient collaboration.

"We need a quick transport solution... The barge was supposed to be operating last week but was delayed over issues on the west side, the ramp has not been touched on.

"And there is no signage on either side of the river warning people not to swim because it is dangerous."

Mr Murray described the situation as "a stuff-up on several levels".

"We need to ask ourselves who is responsible for what in the Fitzroy Valley," he said.

Marra Worra Worra chief executive Antonio Giometti described the ongoing inability of locals to cross the river as "the biggest stuff up in history, quite frankly".

"We had no loss of life during the floods, but since then we have had a loss of one and now possibly two lives," he said on Sunday night.

"The bridge is a critical access point. Main Roads were talking about an access bridge from the first week of the flooding, now more than six weeks later nothing has happened.

"They were trying to put a barge crossing in for the last four weeks and that is not going to plan, they keep having mishaps, losing cranes in the river. They were going to do some work and it gets washed away. These guys are engineers."

Mr Giometti said he understood that some work being done on the east side of the river was washed away after more heavy rain recently.

"There was talk about putting in place a temporary bridge, which are quite common, the US military uses them, then talk about barges for temporary access before putting in a replacement bridge. The barge should have been in place by now," he said.

"A temporary bridge will take six months and a permanent structure 18 months to two years, we are told. Nothing has happened."

Mr Giometti said there had been some discussion of "getting the old crossing fixed" but noted it would likely be under water until April.

"People are going down to the river, they are looking across and can see Fitzroy Crossing and want to get to town to get supplies from the IGA or the BP and try to swim across, but it is a fast moving river… And some of these people are very fit, but it's that dangerous," he said.

"A simple walkway would have been sufficient so people could at least walk across. We established a bus service in town to facilitate people getting around town but the river crossing continues to elude us, incredibly."

A Western Australian government spokesperson told National Indigenous Times that Main Roads is "working as fast as it can to deliver a new barge operation across the Martuwarra/Fitzroy River, however heavy rain and rising river levels continue to hamper the efforts of crews on the ground".

"Access roads and a landing area on the eastern side of the river now complete and works are well underway on the access road and landing area on the western side," he said.

"The Martuwarra/Fitzroy River is a Registered Aboriginal Site with many Cultural sites along its banks, and Main Roads has been working closely with the Bunuba Traditional Owners to identify appropriate locations to build barge infrastructure on the western side of the river.

"Last week, Main Roads received approval on appropriate locations to build the barge infrastructure on the western side, and that work is now underway. It's expected the first barge service, which will be able to transport groups of people and individual vehicles, will be operational within the next one to two weeks, pending ongoing weather conditions."

The spokesperson said the government is not pursuing a pedestrian walkway across the river as it would be a significant undertaking and incredibly difficult to achieve with the current river conditions.

"Development work for construction of two, temporary low-level crossings over the Martuwarra/Fitzroy River is underway. These crossings will be used during the dry season to provide connectivity for locals and the broader Kimberley community," he said.

"It is hoped that both the low-level crossings and access roads will be completed by May 2023, however this will be dependent on the future rainfall and river conditions. Essential goods continue to be delivered into flood affected areas by aircraft and barge to ensure that communities on the eastern side of the river have access to supplies."

The state government spokesperson said there is still a twice daily helicopter service to take people across the Fitzroy River.

"The service is open to anyone. To be eligible people can register with the Marra Worra Worra Aboriginal Corporation."

They also urged residents not to enter Martuwarra / Fitzroy River because it is fast flowing, dangerous, and may also contain debris and harmful contaminants, including wastewater.


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