NO COURT punishment could ever compare to the devastating penalty that faces Widgee mum Sandra Kay Shearer every day of her life after she lost her son Jacob in the Australia Day floods last year.
However, Ms Shearer faced Gympie Magistrates Court yesterday to answer a charge of dangerous operation of a vehicle from that fateful night that Jacob drowned.
About 20 friends and family followed her into the court room yesterday, many in tears.
The single charge was for driving into flood waters at Little Widgee Creek Bridge on January 27, 2013. On a plea of guilty, the penalty for the 44-year-old mum, well-loved in Widgee, was 100 hours community service.
But while the extent of the charge stopped at driving the family van into the flooded Little Widgee Creek, consequences spanned far beyond.
Ms Shearer's son Jacob, who had cerebral palsy and could not walk or swim, had been in his wheelchair in the back of the van the morning the vehicle became trapped in the swollen creek.
The court heard Ms Shearer, her husband Domenico Di Pasquazio and Jacob had been celebrating Australia Day at the Jockey Club Hotel the evening before. After hours of celebration, at a pub where Jacob was much-loved and well known, the family decided to sleep off the evening's drinks in their van.
Ms Shearer and her husband retired around 10.30pm, and Jacob joined later. The court heard around 3.30am the next morning the family decided to drive home to Widgee.
While the road was wet, Ms Shearer told police the rain was light at best. The court heard she drove cautiously that morning, recalling local lore that if a driver could get across Eel Creek Bridge at times of heavy rain, then making it to Widgee was quite possible.
She crossed about 30cm of flood water near Scrubby Creek Rd, but when she approached Little Widgee Creek, she underestimated the depth of the water covering the bridge.
The court heard she slowly drove the van over the bridge but it stalled. The court heard knee-deep water on the bridge quickly rose and Mr Di Pasquazio cut seatbelts to tie around Jacob, who he took from his wheelchair.
With the family trapped in the rapidly rising creek, there came a beacon of hope when a car arrived, Shearer climbed on to the roof of the van to flag the driver down and they drove for help.
Sadly, in the time it took for help to arrive, strong flood waters knocked the van over and washed the family down Little Widgee Creek.
Despite courageous rescue efforts, Jacob could not be saved and Ms Shearer and Mr Di Pasquazio were found clinging to a tree by rescue services.
The court heard an initial swift water rescue failed to retrieve to the pair and the crew was also swept away, losing its vessel and equipment.
After five hours holding on for dear life, the pair was rescued.
Sadly, Jacob's body was found the next day.
Looking Ms Shearer in the eye, Magistrate Maxine Baldwin spoke with a soft yet determined tone: "You are here charged with simple dangerous operation of a vehicle, and that is the extent," she said.
"You are not here being punished for causing Jacob's death; because you didn't.
"This isn't about Jacob's death, it's about driving into the water.
"You, at a very young age, dedicated your life to Jacob and did your utmost to give him a normal life."
She said in many ways, taking Jacob to the pub for Australia Day was part of giving her bright-eyed son a normal life. She stressed that, while the community urged drivers "if it's flooded, forget it", there were no allegations of reckless or drink driving or speeding.
Prosecutor Sergeant Michael Phillips spoke of his difficulty in fashioning a sentencing submission.
"There has been a tragic outcome, which the prosecution can see," Sgt Phillips said.
"The penalty imposed by herself given what happened... I was trying to fashion a sentence but probation (which can offer counselling) was the only (one) I could come up with."
The Magistrate said Ms Shearer had given to the community through caring for Jacob, and an option of community service gave her a chance to give to the community in a different way.
"This is tragic for your family and the community at large," Magistrate Baldwin said.
Ms Shearer was also disqualified from driving for six months - the mandatory minimum.
Flood markers have since been erected at Little Widgee Creek Bridge.
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