A social event with a local bushwalking club went horribly wrong on Saturday (January 2) when two women were sucked under a vortex in a canyon in Mount Wilson and died soon after.
The bodies of the two women, aged 24 and 39, were recovered by police divers a full day later a few metres down the river from where they went under. They had been swept into an unusual whirlpool in the Wollangambe Canyon and disappeared.
The 39-year-old was confirmed as serving NSW Police officer, Senior Constable Kelly Foster, from Lithgow station. The other woman is a 24-year-old international student from Chiswick. As of Monday her name had not been publicly released and police are waiting for confirmation that family members in China had been notified.
Initial reports from witnesses indicate the younger woman was tipped off her inflatable lilo and swept into a three-four metre deep whirlpool; Snr Cst Foster was swept into the underwater hole when she attempted to rescue her.
The pair was with eight others on a social trip with an established Mountains bushwalking club when they disappeared. Other members of the group were uninjured and some had already successfully navigated that part of the canyon - about a third of the way in from the start.
Two members of the group made the steep 90 minute climb from the river to get mobile phone reception, while attempts were made to retrieve them with a short length of rope. The emergency call went out at about 2.30pm.
Blue Mountains Police Rescue Sergeant Dallas Atkinson, who helped recover the bodies, said "in the context of Blue Mountains canyons it's an extremely unusual event", one he had not seen in 14 years working in the rescue area.
"It could have happened to anybody," he said. "It was an unfortunate tragedy."
"Despite some rain, the water levels were not unusually high, maybe slightly above normal. It wasn't running dirty and the rest of the canyon was normal."
Sgt Atkinson likened the force of the event to pulling an 800mm plug from one end of a 25 metre pool.
"In the very recent past, something's changed in that particular section of the canyon that's caused the bulk of the water volume to go underneath the rocks. As a result other ordinary flow points have stopped flowing. You don't see it virtually ever, but there's always the potential. You put moving water [and moving debris] through a space, it's got to go somewhere."
National Parks has closed the canyon to the public and are examining the site.
In the very recent past, something's changed in that particular section of the canyon that's caused the bulk of the water volume to go underneath the rocks. As a result other ordinary flow points have stopped flowing. You don't see it virtually ever, but there's always the potential. You put moving water [and moving debris] through a space, it's got to go somewhere.Sgt Dallas Atkinson
A spokesperson for the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) said they had "closed Wollangambe One Canyon, effective immediately".
"Signage and barriers have been erected at major entry points to this area of the river and the closure has been notified on the NPWS website.
"While we understand this is an extremely popular canyoning location, we are asking the canyoning community to comply with the closure until further notice.
"NPWS will consider its options for managing the site into the future, including seeking available independent, expert advice."
The Wollangambe canyon has a large catchment area with many tributaries and the volume of water through Wollangambe River, unlike smaller slot canyons is considerable. Wollangambe One is classified as an introductory canyon and one often frequented by children.
But Sgt Atkinson stressed that "canyoning does have risks and canyons' behaviour is unpredictable."
During the recovery operation, Sgt Atkinson said the behaviour of the whirlpool was changing frequently.
Blue Mountains Police, Police Rescue and divers, NSW Ambulance and the Rural Fire Service assisted in the rescue. Due to poor weather conditions, the search was suspended about 6pm Saturday but recommenced Sunday.
Blue Mountains Police Chief Inspector Peter Scheinflug told media: "It's true traditions of the NSW Police that it's service above self and it's a common line we're quite often first responders [who] run towards danger as other people run from it."
NSW Police Acting Commissioner Mal Lanyon extended his condolences to the Foster family on behalf of NSW Police.
"It's a very sad time for the NSW Police Force and Kelly's death is a loss to the whole community," Acting Commissioner Lanyon said.
"To hear reports that Kelly was trying to help another woman when she died demonstrates her commitment to the community she served and the ability to put the needs of others before her own.
"Kelly was a highly regarded and dedicated officer who will be sorely missed by colleagues across the force. Police said "the family and friends of both women have requested privacy at this time".
Police Minister David Elliot said the officer had "sadly lost her life coming to the aid of another, a truly heroic act that will never be forgotten".
A report is being prepared for the Coroner which will also look into the heights of the water, water flow and causation.