Riley (left) and Travis O'Neill, who drowned with their father after falling off Tathra wharf, on the NSW South Coast on Tuesday. Photo: Supplied
SHANE O'Neill was a fisherman, a footballer and a butcher, but above all he was a father.
He rarely went drinking with his rugby league team, preferring a night at home with his fiancee and young sons, or a quiet evening fishing.
When his two boys, Riley, 4, and Travis, 15 months, toppled off the Tathra wharf on the NSW South Coast late on Tuesday into black and choppy seas, he dived straight in after them.
The townships of Bega and Tathra were in mourning yesterday following the deaths of Mr O'Neill and his boys. Stacey Lambert, 24, his high-school sweetheart, faces life without the man she was due to marry in March — and their children.
It was probably a little after 8pm when the boys fell from the wharf where their father was fishing.
Robert Brown, a Canberra man and the recent owner of a caravan in the area, was also on the wharf. He said Mr O'Neill threw himself into the water after his sons.
Mr Brown, a protective services officer for the Australian Federal Police, stripped off his clothes and boots before following them into the sea.
He told his rescuers that Riley had been playing on his brother's pram, causing both boys to topple from the wharf.
The night was darkening and 20-knot winds had stirred up a 1.5-metre swell.
Only 500 metres away, five members of the Tathra Surf Life Saving Club had gathered for a meeting. About 8.20pm they received a call that two children and several adults needed rescuing.
Within three minutes, club president Scott Meaker and Tony Rettke arrived at the wharf.
They found Mr Brown struggling to keep his head above water, grasping a child's booster seat as a makeshift float.
"Rob was just groaning," Mr Rettke said. "He wasn't calling for help, but he was just groaning with every breath. He was treading water but just holding on."
The two lifesavers helped Mr Brown onto the wharf. In the darkness they could not see Mr O'Neill and his sons. They spotted them, with the aid of a torch, floating face down under the wharf.
Mr Meaker jumped in and swam beneath the wharf, negotiating its gnarled pylons.
Helped by Mr Rettke, he carried the children up a ladder at the wharf's end. Mr Rettke's son Shayne, 19, who had just arrived, remained in the sea with Mr O'Neill's body.
"There was no hope for us trying to get him up the ladder," Shayne said.
About 10 minutes later, Mr Rettke's son Cameron, 21, and another club member ferried Mr O'Neill to the beach on an inflatable rescue boat.
Onshore, Cameron Rettke tried for about 20 minutes to resuscitate Mr O'Neill, until an ambulance arrived. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
Mr O'Neill and his family lived in Kalaroo, between Bega and Tathra. Locals yesterday described him as a warm, caring father, passionate about fishing and the outdoors.
Mitch Creary, his rugby league coach at the Bega Roosters, said the 28-year old and his fiancee were "really close, a really good couple".
"They weren't out every Friday night drinking; they were hard-working. He would have come in here about two or three times a year," Mr Creary said.
Mr Creary owns the Commercial Hotel, across the road from the butcher's shop where Mr O'Neill had worked for 15 years.
"He's a really good diver," Mr Creary said. "It must've been the cold water, that's what's so different here."
Mr O'Neill's boss, Allan Wheatley, said he was "a terrific bloke, absolutely terrific". He was "someone that would do anything for anyone, who just loved the outdoors, loved fishing, loved camping, loved diving, loved football", he said.
"He lived in the water, he dived for lobsters … When that little kid went in the water, he would have busted himself trying to get him out."
Customers who knew Mr O'Neill well had sent in tributes.
"The phone hasn't stopped ringing," Mr Wheatley said.
Mr O'Neill's children were regulars in the store, he said.
used to hang around here … he cherished them."
Police area commander Superintendent Mick Willing said the tragedy was probably a freak accident, but details remained unconfirmed.
With GEORGINA ROBINSON and ARJUN RAMACHANDRAN