This is easily one of the most remarkable crocodile attack and survival stories you will probably ever read.
In December, 2003, three young friends went for a bit of a hoon on their quad bikes near a river in the NT. They got muddy, and went to the river to clean off. Something close to a flash flood hit and the three friends were swept away. One was taken by a crocodile, the others climbed a tree to escape, and spent a long and terrifying night up there while the crocodile that had taken their friend waited for them down below. The rescue of the two survivors is almost as incredible as the story of their survival.
The full story of this real-life horror movie has now been told for the first time :
Four years on, the survivors are getting on with their lives, shielded by family and friends. After a couple of brief statements and a press conference at which the boys, pale and visibly shaken, paid tribute to their mate, none of those involved directly, or indirectly, has since spoken about the tragedy. Crocodile attacks in the Top End of Australia are not uncommon. But there was something in the boys' ordeal that ensured that their story continues to resonate.
The trio spent a raucous, enjoyable day, spraying each other with mud as they roared around on the bikes. At 4.30pm, they went down to the river, to a spot 200 metres downstream from Walkers Ford, parked their bikes just up from the bank, and began to wash their clothes and boots, which were covered in sand and mud. They had noted that the water was fairly high; they thought this was normal for the time of year, but did not realise how much the river was in flood and that a strong tide was coming in.
Shaun's police statement detailed what happened next: "The three of us walked into the water among some stringy trees. The water was running a little bit at this spot... and Brett went out a little farther and was washed away. I don't know if he lost his footing or the current was a bit strong for him. After we saw Brett washed away, both Ashley and I went out after him. Ashley and I caught up to Brett and we both got in front of him as we went with the flow. I was in front, Ashley was next and Brett was at the rear. We were all within arms' reach of each other. It probably took us about 300 metres to catch up with Brett and then we began to look for a place to get out of the river. We all spoke to each other to check that we were all right. There was no real panic at this stage."
The three young men, caught in the current, travelled for 700m-1km as they looked for a way to get back to dry land. Shaun's police statement recounts the next part of the story: "Ashley yelled out, 'Croc, croc, I'm not joking, there's a fucking croc. Head for a tree, get out of the water.' I didn't see a croc, but swam to the nearest tree and climbed up into the first fork. I helped pull Ashley up into the same tree. We looked around for Brett and called his name out. I didn't see Brett anywhere or hear him call out. I didn't hear a call or a splash or anything. It wasn't very long after we got into the tree, maybe two minutes later, that I saw a croc pop up with Brett in his jaws. Brett wasn't moving, he was lying face down in the water and the croc was gripping him by the left shoulder. I know it was Brett because he was wearing his O'Neill riding gear, which was mainly yellow with black and white stripes. The croc was only about five metres away from us at the time. It was only a couple of minutes that the croc remained looking around at us. It went under the water with Brett and swam away. I did not see Brett again."
The two survivors described the crocodile as "big, black and aggressive" and around four metres long. Five minutes later, it returned and remained at the foot of the tree, bobbing up intermittently. The traumatised teenagers spent the night in the tree, keeping each other awake. Shaun was in the second fork of the tree, Ashley in the third. Just on nightfall, Shaun tried to move higher up and, in a heart-stopping moment, fell into the water. Terrified, he scrambled out again within seconds.
As night closed around them and the temperature dropped, Ashley moved down to the second fork so the two friends could huddle together and try to keep warm. Throughout the long night they didn't say much, apart from checking the other was all right. "Because we couldn't see each other, because it was dark, I had my hand on Ashley's foot," Shaun said later. "Whenever we moved, we'd say, 'I'm moving', and just check in on each other and make sure we weren't going to sleep. We were worn out from hanging on to the little tree. The tree was swaying all night because there was a lot of wind and rain."
"It's something [the boys] will never completely recover from," Sgt Casey says, "but they're doing well and trying to get on with their lives."
Now in their mid-20s, Shaun and Ashley still live locally. Shaun works for his family's business and one of his jobs is cleaning swimming pools. He tells customers that if they have any blow-up croc toys in their pools to make sure they are out of sight before he arrives.
Ashley took the longest to get over what happened, and is said to be still very affected by the ordeal. Brett's parents are now divorced and both moved away after their son's death.
Every year, however, Brett's family, Ashley, Shaun and their friends return to the spot where he died to remember him. "It's a nice occasion, obviously very sombre and emotional," Casey says.
"Everybody arrives in their cars and goes down to the river to where he disappeared. Some people say a few words or maybe there's some music. Afterwards we have a barbecue and a couple of drinks in his honour."
Definitely worth reading this story in full, here.