NOT FORGOTTEN: George Bender's wife Pam and daughter Helen light candles at his memorial service in 2015.
NOT FORGOTTEN: George Bender's wife Pam and daughter Helen light candles at his memorial service in 2015. Alana Calvert

Helen Bender reflects on year since father's death

ON THE morning of October 13, 2015, Helen Bender woke up and couldn't breathe.

It persisted for the rest of the day, and she couldn't understand why.

What she did know was this: Something was wrong. Something bad was going to happen.

Later that afternoon, Helen received the phone call from home with the devastating news that changed everything, and the ominous feeling which had hung over her throughout the day was realised.

Helen's father, George Bender, was in Chinchilla Hospital after trying to take his own life.

At that time Helen, a civil engineer with a masters in project management, had been living and working in Brisbane.

The firm she was working for was to close their Brisbane office in the coming weeks.

"I was in a transitional stage. I was supposed to relocate to Melbourne and I really didn't want to go. My life was here; I was really happy in Brisbane," Helen recalled.

"And then, October 13 came around and everything changed."

Helen had driven out from Brisbane that night to Chinchilla to see her dad and be with her family.

"The very first thing dad said to me when I walked into the room was 'I'm so sorry, I shouldn't have done it, my brain snapped'."

Helen made a promise to her dad.

"He wanted to have a shower. He asked all night for a shower. I told him if he made it through to the morning, I'd give him his shower."

Despite being in terrible agony, George made it through the night and in the morning, Helen kept her promise to him.

"That was a pretty special moment to give him his last wish."


Helen Bender pictured with her late father George.
Helen Bender pictured with her late father George. Contributed

The seemingly simple favour to her dad provided some semblance of comfort to Helen in the trauma that was to come.

Later that day, on October 14, George was airlifted to Brisbane PA Hospital, while his family made the nearly four-hour journey by car.

"We had a special thing that happened when... we were driving to Brisbane," Helen said.

"The minute dad left Chinchilla it started to rain. It was this massive downpour. It was really bizarre, and then when we got to Dalby, I'd never seen such a perfect double rainbow in my life. I took that as a sign of 'yep, he's going to make it'."

Nearly three hours later, the Bender family made it to Brisbane, only to receive the news they were 15 minutes too late.

George had died.

Within hours of George's death, while his family were still numb with grief, their father, husband, brother and uncle was suddenly making national news; politicians including Glenn Lazarus and Larissa Waters were releasing media statements over his suicide, attributing it to CSG companies; George was the subject of special TV reports by The Project, the ABC and A Current Affair; radio personalities like Alan Jones were publicly slamming Origin and QGC for the death of George and every household around Australia seemed to know about Hopeland farmer George Bender.

"It was the most tragic moment in our entire life and then we woke up the next day and it was on the radio and the TV, and it felt like a violation," Helen said.

After that, Helen took the redundancy option at her job and returned to the family farm to look after her dad's paperwork and try to somehow handle the media requests the family were being swamped with.

"Instead of starting a grieving process we had to write a media statement," she said.

Helen said the pivotal point was the night the ABC's Q&A program was broadcast from Toowoomba; the Benders had only buried George two days before but it appeared that their supporters planned to "bombard" the panellists with questions about George Bender and the CSG industry.

The family subsequently made the decision to have their solicitors contact the show's producers to let them know that if someone was going to ask a question that related to George it would be one of them - it would be Helen.

Footage of Helen asking Federal Nationals senator Fiona Nash and Opposition agriculture minister Joel Fitzgibbon when they would give farmers the right to "say no" to CSG companies was broadcast across the country and globally.

Helen explained that it felt like she was "chosen" to be the one who had to step out from under the cover of grief and be the one in the spotlight.

"It's not about me, I am just a representing those who have been silenced by the industry," she said.

There is some anger too, she said, which was compounded by sifting through her dad's paperwork and emails from the past ten years.

"He was sitting there every day for ten years trying to get help from the government or anybody and on that day something broke inside dad," she said.

"(Origin) were trying to force us to sell the property. That was tearing the family apart.

"That caused the brain snap. He was forced into a corner by Origin. He couldn't protect his family and that caused him to snap, he sacrificed himself for the family."

For their part, Origin has always maintained they carry out their business in line with the commitments made to the farmers and communities in which they operate.

October 14 will mark one year since George committed suicide and Helen said she hoped her father would be proud of her.

"Like dad, I've made huge sacrifices. I rolled the dice and lost my personal self and so much more," she said.

"I don't have any regrets about standing up for landholders' rights, (but) if I had my time again, I would do it differently and prioritise the people who matter most to me. Now I live with those regrets."

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