When Heroes Fail: a Story of One Rescuer

Queensland Police video report to the coroner, Jan. 2011 floods
(1) This is our first attempt to gain access to the vehicle. The barbed wire fence, to the right of the vehicle, was covered by a foot of water by the time we made the vehicle on the second attempt. This is the fence we used as the “safety” line. (Photo courtesy of the Queensland Police video report to the coroner, Jan. 2011 floods; used with permission.)
Click to view video

BY IAN BLAND

During the Australian summer of 2010-2011, emergency services in Queensland were tested by an unprecedented series of natural disasters. At the fore of these disasters were the men and women of the Queensland Fire and Rescue service. Among the many fire crews were some 200 men and women who were the service’s Level II rescue technicians, who responded to the needs of the state of Queensland.

This is the story of one of these technicians who had the difficult distinction of having rescued a boy briefly only to lose the boy during the rescue and the chain of events that followed.

PRELUDE

In December 2010, the east coast of Australia was hit with a series of tropical rain depressions that commenced a range of floods that would soon have the world’s attention as town after town succumbed to the rapidly rising waters. The state had 200 swift water technicians to protect its population. These firefighters were based along the east coast, the largest percentage around southeast Queensland. This larger cluster was soon deployed in task force teams of four to small country towns in advance of the rising waters. They would leapfrog their way down the inland waterways as the river peaks rose and fell.

I was based in Ipswich, a small city on the edge of Brisbane, which would soon experience one of the largest floods in 40 years. The local fire crews work out of four stations. Of the 100 firefighters and officers based in the Ipswich command, 11 were Level II swift water rescue technicians.

On January 1, 2011, Brendan Ashby, another swift water technician, and I were deployed to Emerald as part of a four-member swift water team. Emerald is about seven hours away by vehicle, but we were fortunate to catch a flight into the town. The deployment was for 10 days. Without too much issue, we spent only the first couple of days in rescue mode and the last week in recovery mode, assessing damages and hosing out homes and businesses. Meanwhile, back home, it had continued to rain most days.

We were to be flown out in the morning of January 10; however, there was an issue with the flight, and we were pushed back to the late afternoon. While waiting at the airport, we caught up with Trevor Meier (another Ipswich-based swift water firefighter). Little did we know that in six hours, he would be making continuous life-and-death decisions on the fly as he raced from one rescue to another in the Lockyer Valley, where the flood would take 28 lives.

We arrived in Brisbane at 1715 hours on Monday, January 10, and just missed a helicopter flight into the valley. We were told to go home to rest. I spent the night snatching sleep and getting updates from my crew (normal shift) and our rescue teams as they struggled to be everywhere at once.

GRANTHAM AND GATTON RESPONSE

The next morning, at 0330 hours, I received a call to report to duty; the crew on duty had been in water about 18 hours continuously. My normal 20-minute run to work was now about an hour plus because of flooded roads and bridges. When I arrived around 5 a.m., I was informed that Brendan and I would be changing out the duty crews at Grantham and Gatton.

These two towns were the focus of the nation; the water had rolled over the top of Grantham and 100-plus persons were reported missing. The drive into Gatton (the neighboring town) to the command center would normally take 50 minutes. However, today we could not make it; in fact, some crews ended up isolated in Grantham for more than 48 hours.

After checking the rescue truck (noting that we had little swift water equipment left, as it was still in Gatton), we started out. We had been driving more than an hour through rising water and around landslides when we arrived at Lockyer Creek, which was now more than 500-600 yards wide and flowing more than six feet above the guardrail of the bridge. We were still some six to nine miles from the command center. Gatton Command advised us over the radio that we weren’t needed; we were released back to Ipswich Command. After getting a young couple out of their flooded sedan, we turned around.

FAMILY TRAPPED

Fifteen minutes later at the top of the Minden range, Firecom dispatched us to a family trapped in rising flood waters at the Minden crossroads, one-half mile from our position. As I acknowledged the call, Brendan was pointing out the vehicle in the water. The passengers were about 60 yards from the edge of the highway sitting on top of their four-wheel drive (4WD) vehicle. Water was just starting to run over the hood. The 4WD wasn’t on the road anymore; the water had pushed it sideways into a fence.

We gathered four personal flotation devices (PDFs) and prepared to attempt to gain access. The family was in dire danger. As we watched, the vehicle moved. Just prior to deploying into the water, a civilian arrived. I dialed Firecom’s number and gave him the mobile phone. I told him that if we were swept away, he should hit “redial” and tell the lady where we were and what he had seen.

The first attempt wasn’t successful. The water was too high, and we were on the wrong side of the main flow. We then decided to try to use the cattle fence as a safety line to get to the vehicle. Although this at first seemed like the best option, it was difficult. Floating above the top strand of the barbed wire using a catch-and-release method to slow our speed was hard on our hands.

About halfway to the vehicle, a piece of road asphalt, 8 × 6 feet, came tumbling down the main flow. I didn’t have much time. It struck me, taking me under and off the fence. I surfaced facing the right way. Two swim strokes later, I slammed into the front bumper. As I dragged myself up onto the hood, Brendan arrived, driven into the side of the vehicle and wedged by the barbed wire fence. He carefully dragged himself free as we both realized the vehicle was now floating but was being held in place by the ensnared back bumper.

We fitted the extra PFDs we had brought to the two adults and the two children and started to assess our options. We didn’t want to go back into the water until our backups arrived. The water was still rising.

We thought there was an eddy downstream about 125 feet away on river right, but it was across the secondary flow. Pressure waves were between two and four feet high. Then the larger of the two children fell into the water and was gone. I dove straight in. (I later realized I had just cleared a hidden fence.) Three strokes later, I caught him. There was no going back now; we were in the main flow. I started swimming hard, using a rescue stroke, keeping him in my body’s eddy, and just managed to catch the bottom edge of the eddy we had seen from the 4WD.

The eddy was created by a submerged island of land. I looked up. Brendan and the smaller child, Jessi, were in the water and in trouble; they were centered in the main flow heading toward a large standing wave. I quickly deployed a throw bag. It fell short. I rapidly regathered and used a backhanded loose rope throw. As the rope straightened and the water current pulled at Brendan, I hauled. The end line knot hit Brendan’s forearm. Then the younger child separated from Brendan’s lanyard.

I quickly took three six-foot grabs of rope, nearly popping Brendan out of the water. He reached the edge of the eddy, and I was off. I dove over the top of a fence and started swimming hard. I was closing in, but I was running out of space. The flows were starting to combine. I kept my head down and was swimming hard. I thought, another five or six strokes, and I should have Jessi. Then, we hit the main flow. I was tossed sideways. When I looked up, he was gone. Like a cork taking off, he was pulling away and was already twice the distance away as when I first dove in. Shattered, exhausted, and now fighting for my own life, I grabbed a tree guard and hung on. I had failed.

By time we were rescued by helicopter, 90 minutes had passed. I managed to get back to the eddy only to have to face the mother of the child. Her scream will stay with me forever. Brendan had managed to drag both the parents to safety while I was chasing the smaller child.

Back with our vehicle, we were dispatched again, to some four or five different calls, before we got back into Ipswich station, numb and functioning on autopilot. We went to the hospital and had Brendan’s injuries dressed. Then, we were back into the disaster. We were on duty continuously for the next four days.

HOME … AND REPERCUSSIONS

We arrived home on Sunday, January 16. The next morning, my family and I were out hosing out local flooded homes when I got a call from the rescue coordinator. I was needed back at work immediately. National headlines in the four major Sunday newspapers read, “Botched Rescue Kills 4 Yr. Old.” I was devastated. The text of the story claimed that the fire service was so ashamed of the rescue that we had been stood down.

On the way into work that day, questions began to surface in my mind: Who wrote this? Was our performance that poor? Had we been reckless? Why hadn’t they spoken to us? How was Brendan feeling?

I called Brendan while on the road. A hollow voice answered, but it soon turned angry, “Who was this hack? What would he know?” As the dust started to settle, we learned that the “reporter” had conducted a “death knock” phone interview with Jessi’s father, who was still in the hospital the afternoon of the incident.

Rumors had been started in the greater community of the fire service, mostly by those who weren’t at the event. The fire service media unit decided it wouldn’t challenge the article, claiming that it would only keep the first story alive in the press-a tit-for-tat effect.

Back home, my wife and family were hurt and angry. On the morning of January 11, I left so early that I didn’t have the chance to wish my younger son happy 18th birthday. I didn’t make it home for five more days. My two sons and daughter now had to face the world knowing that many thought their father was reckless and incompetent and had cost a young child his life.

My wife Marita had her own demons to deal with. She is a practice nurse for a doctor’s surgery center in the Lockyer Valley. The family we had rescued were patients of the center. She had a withdrawn husband at home and a grieving family trying to seek answers at work. Where was her escape?

The shift cycle at work began: There were interviews with the police investigating the death, colleagues asking for details, crew members who lost their houses to the flood waters, and the fire service conducting its own review of what occurred and lessons learned.

The community was also presenting daily challenges. Some of the homes that had gone under were washed out by volunteers. The structures presented asbestos risks, and we were busy checking and sealing off the problem areas. I kept busy. I was okay, but my crews were snappy and tense. The work done by the other shifts during the disaster was now coming under scrutiny. The crew members were starting to tear ourselves apart.

Out of the blue, Brendan and I received an invitation to attend the funeral for Jessi. How could we go? We had failed that little boy. To see that small white coffin would be too much! The family was talking about suing us one minute and “forgiving” us the next, and all of this was being played out in the news.

As the work environment began to return to normal, I found myself wishing for a “good” fire just to get the crew back on track. It was now near the end of January. The work had been intense and constant, and I was struggling with the crew dynamics and was angry and tired. Something had to change, I thought.

DISTRACTION AND REALITY

The phone texting signal went off at 0350 hours on February 3: “A category 5 cyclone has formed and is heading for Far North Queensland. Task force deployment to Cairns. Depart at 1000 hours.” Marita wasn’t happy. Her look indicated, “Why you?” Inside, I was happy to go. It would be good to escape and head into another disaster 1,600 miles north.

Cyclone Yasi arrived as a category 5 storm and struck a small town called Tully. I spent 10 days in the area working from daylight to sunset. The task force returned to Brisbane afterward. Brendan and I had worked long hours searching, disaster mapping, and covering torn-off roofs.

We arrived back home on Valentine’s Day. My wife sat me down after dinner and said we needed to talk. Marita had decided that she needed to confront the “elephant” in the room, my handling of the January rescue. She pointed out that since the middle of December, I had been home only five nights and that I couldn’t keep going at this pace. I hadn’t spoken to anyone about this. I was still in “captain fix-it” mode.

I was a bit taken aback. I thought I had protected my family from the impact of this situation. Apparently, I was only kidding myself. I knew I would have to do something about it. But what? Then I had a call from Brendan. He had arrived home to a somewhat similar confrontation (firefighters’ wives!). Now, there was something I could do. I visited Brendan’s place and spent an afternoon with him and his wife, helping her to understand what Brendan was going through. I’ll be honest: doing this also probably helped me see what was happening to me.

Seven days later, I received the SMS message, “7.6 earthquake. Christchurch Task Force USAR QLD 1, depart 1400 hours.” I grabbed my deployment pack and headed for the station. The same crew was there ready to deploy. Then my inspector said, “Ian, you’re not going. I need you to sit this one out.”

I was angry. Why wasn’t I selected? Was I being punished? Brendan was off again; it didn’t feel right.

I watched from afar, wishing I was there, angry at being left out because of a choice I didn’t get to make. Was this because I wasn’t good enough? Did they think we had failed and they didn’t want to take that chance with me again? Was I being punished? These and many more thoughts cruised through my head on an hourly basis. My wife treaded carefully around me, a caged tiger spoiling for a fight. Fortunately, I didn’t start one, but it was not my best moment to compete for “husband of the year.”

FEAR AND ACCEPTANCE

By the middle of March, the government announced there would be a Flood Inquiry that would cover all aspects of the January disaster, including emergency response. In April, I received a summons to attend the inquiry. Previously, I had finished the interview process with the police. This process included several sessions of questioning and a filmed walk-through of events at the scene to clarify the locations and the timeline.

The inquiry came and went. I spent a couple of hours on the stand and then waited for the outcome. Meanwhile, Brendan and I noticed that we were still becoming angry over little things. Sometimes, our anger was justified; other times, the problem was that people were not committed enough to training. After all, we knew what it was to fail, and it wasn’t going to happen again!

I was back in the pool swim training again three or four times a week, swimming 1.5 miles, and I was always finishing with a sprint, as if somehow I now had an obligation to be faster. Our swift water workshop was scheduled for late July. This two-day refresher course was on the Tully River. I wondered if I would be comfortable being back in swift water. I arrived at the river. The first task was the confidence swims through the rapids. Most of the people around me were careful of what they said. I felt that this was happening wherever I went. It were as if I had changed somehow.

I was back in the water, being bashed and swimming hard. I had had my doubts, but it was okay. Unfortunately, one of my colleagues couldn’t do it. He quietly left. The look on his face portrayed a man who was lost, yet here was a man who had twice dived into flood waters to save a girl and her mother while dodging tumbling cars! That didn’t seem right.

When I returned home, I felt as if some of the load was off my shoulders, as though I could breathe deeply again. Then a letter arrived. I had been nominated for a Silver Medal for Bravery from the Royal Humane Society. Was I brave? How could I accept this when I had failed? Brendan called and said he had received the same letter. He asked if we should accept the award.

My wife asked how could I not accept? She explained, “This was not for the boy lost but for the others who were saved.” She knew I was brave, but she wanted the rest of the world to know it, too.

In December, the coroner’s inquest started for the victims of the disaster. Jessi’s death was identified as unique in the disaster; his inquest was set aside for an individual hearing. This meant a new round of interviews and discussions with our lawyers. Old fears and doubts started to resurface: Our split-second decisions and reactions would now be examined in minute detail by people who had all the time they needed with none of the pressure.

A year had passed, and the seasonal rain started again; there was some local flooding but nothing significant. On January 11, the first anniversary of Jessi’s death, the family reminded us that we had failed and cost them their son. I know they were lashing out, but it still hurt.

Late January, the rain started with earnest. I was called to deploy into the Lockyer Valley; major flooding was predicted. Sure enough, the flood water came and, again, Brendan and I were the only team available in an isolated area. At midnight, we were dispatched to a resident trapped; it took a two-mile paddle with the current and a much longer two-mile paddle against the current to rescue him.

We were changed out next morning and put on standby for the next evening. We were called in early that afternoon and asked if we could rescue a trapped woman in a car. Two teams had tried to gain access but could not do it. It was dark by the time our team set off. We managed to get to an upstream position and then into the water again. Three hours later, we rescued the woman even though, along the way, we had had to deal with a cranky camel that was neck deep in water under a flooded house. It was 10 p.m. by the time we got back to our vehicle; we had been paddling for more than five hours.

I got back home safely the next day. I had missed my wife’s birthday, but I felt better this time when I arrived home. I had again done a difficult rescue, but this time, it went according to plan.

THE CORONER’S INQUEST

The five-day inquest into Jessi’s death took place in May. It was an open inquest, which meant anyone could sit in and watch, except Brendan and me. On the first day, Jessi’s parents and the police were questioned. The headlines read: “Heartless rescuers fail my son.” The second day included presentation of additional police evidence, the playing of our radio messages, and the questioning of the senior staff in relation to our skills and qualifications. The headlines read, “Panicky rescuer lost boy.”

The hardest part of that day was when they played my first message to the fire communication center, reporting the loss of Jessi over the commercial radio. My poor wife nearly ran off the road when she heard my hollow voice. She was still in tears by the time she arrived home from work.

Day three, I was on the stand. My lawyer said I would probably be there for about an hour. Three hours later, I was exhausted. I had nothing left to give. I had no idea of how my testimony had been received. I was worried for Brendan. I shouldn’t have been. Several of my colleagues who sat with Marita in the public gallery commented that the press had just sat with their mouths open, staring, as I told my story.

As we left the courtroom that day, reporters were in our faces. They asked my wife, “How does it feel to know your husband is a hero?” We left without a comment.

Brendan and I were honored twice more for our actions that day in January 2011, with an Australian Honors Commendation for Bravery and a Commissioners’ Citation for Bravery. We would gladly give these up for a thank you from Jessi’s parents.

Actually looking back, our actions had been valued by our peers on the day of that incident. A retrieval team was sent with a boat to try to find Jessi. The team member phoned me to confirm the location in the water where we had been. When I confirmed that the team was in the right location, he commented that they couldn’t believe we had gone in without a boat and were crazy to even attempt entry.

Some three years later, I can still hear the scream of Jessi’s mother. I also wonder if I should have died trying to save him.

As you read this, you will recognize the same sequence of grief as that experienced by those who have suffered a deep loss and the close brush with depression that events like these can cause. We train to succeed and fight to win, but in our world, being ready still may not be enough.

IAN BLAND is an emergency response advisor with Bechtel, which is currently building the LNG plants on Curtis Island, Queensland, Australia. Previously, his 27-year career included service as a station officer in the Queensland Fire and Rescue Service, where he was a Level II rescue technician for 23 of those years.

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