Ian Law (’55) was pulled into the raging floodwaters of the Darling River earlier this year and floated on his back for almost five hours.
The blind 84-year-old had fallen into floodwaters and was pulled downstream for an agonising 22km, the river current so strong it pulled his false teeth out.
As the hours dragged on and his skin started to burn from the autumn sun, panic began to set in. His voice had grown hoarse from repeatedly, desperately calling out for help and swallowing large amounts of water from the murky river.
But he kept calling.
The Hawthorn great was widely regarded as one of the toughest, most aggressive rovers during his career on the footy field. There is little doubt this ferocity is the very reason he’s alive today.
Where others would have lost hope, Ian never did.
The three time best and fairest still adheres to a strict 30 minute workout routine to keep his mind and body sharp against the perils of old age.
This discipline became even more important five years ago when, while chopping down a tree on his Avoca property, Ian was struck on the head by a branch leaving him almost completely blind. It was devastating for Ian, considered almost indestructible when he emerged from the VFL drafts during the 1960s. Losing his sight “drove him crazy” and robbed him of one of his most cherished pastimes: wandering down to the riverbank that laps at his rural homestead and going for a swim.
Ian and his wife Barbara moved to the riverside retreat almost a quarter of a century ago, parts of which they rent out to holiday-makers.
It’s a far cry from Camberwell, where he was raised, or any neighbours for that matter.
Here, the beaming lights and grandstands of Glenferrie Oval and the MCG have been eclipsed by the tranquillity offered by the steady stream of the river. Despite the solitude, signs of Ian’s sporting achievements – he played 106 games for the Hawks and was three times named best and fairest – are never too far away.
The morning of March 3 began just like any other – with a paddle near the jetty, Ian says.
“I got straight out of the bed and I’ve just walked down there to the water and had a play around with what water I could feel on the plane,” he recalls. Unsatisfied with the water simply lapping around his ankles, Ian decided to walk deeper into the river. “I thought it wasn’t quite deep enough for what I was wanting to do, which was to have a bit of a paddle around. “Next thing, I was going down the bank,” he says.
Recent flooding had seen the river break banks and swell to its highest levels since 1956.
“It was a very steep bank, but you couldn’t see anything of course because everything was underwater.” Ian says after falling into the river, he floated on his back in the centre of the strong current that threatened to snag him onto washed up debris or fallen tree branches. Unable to see or discern how long he had been floating for, Ian grew worried he may make it to Wentworth – the closest town – without being spotted.
“There was nothing I could do about getting out of the river,” he says. “The people over there were miles away. So I thought, perhaps one of our neighbours might hear me calling.”
“I didn’t get a response. There were a couple of dogs that I heard barking, but no humans.”
Ian continued calling, even after the current had knocked his teeth out.
Back on dry ground, a single footprint in the riverbank – the only clue to where he had gone – sent Barbara into a panic.
Sitting by Ian’s side almost two months on, a hand resting on his right shoulder, she describes how a desperate rescue mission began to unfold back at the homestead as she feared the worst.
“I had an awful feeling and went down to the bank, and sure enough, I saw his footprints and thought he’d gone into the river,” she says.
“That was the worst part, knowing that he was in the river somewhere.”
Following a call to some friends nearby, the police and fire brigade descended on the Laws’ home.
“Everyone arrived. They went downhill through the paddock as far as they could go, they couldn’t find him anywhere. They were very concerned,” she says.
Just as emergency services geared up to take to the river in rescue boats in search of Ian, the phone rang.
A husband and wife working along the river spotted a severely sunburnt Law floating downstream before racing their tinny against the strong current and pulling him out of the water.
“She (the woman) heard me calling and fortunately they had their tinny boat handy and were able to get to me before I floated past,” Ian says.
“There’s only a few properties on the way down to where they pulled me out.”
Exhausted but alive, Ian recited the homestead’s landline to the couple, where Barbara had remained, anxiously waiting.
She raced down to the riverbank where Ian had been found before he was taken to hospital where he remained for two weeks.
Aside for extreme sunburn, which scorched the top of his head, Ian was uninjured.
Relaxing back in his tweed chair, his skin now healed, Ian maintains his usual cool and collected demeanour as he recalled his death defying tale.
“I wasn’t worried for my life really,” he says, adding fortune had worked in the couple’s favour that day.
“People aren’t always there. I was just lucky they were”.
“He never panics about anything. And I thought, that’ll save him,” Barbara says.
Ian is waiting for his new set of dentures and has not gone to the river’s edge since his five hour struggle.
His unwavering tenacity has given the couple a new lease on life after more than six decades years of marriage.
“I’ll never leave him alone at home on his own again, that’s for sure,” Barbara says.
Adapted from The Herald Sun, 5.5.23