One of the more vivid stories from Black Saturday that sticks clearly in my memory is hearing of a lady who, about to be airlifted away from the approaching fire, let herself out of the harness to chase after her dog who had wriggled free. People criticised her for endangering the policeman rescuing her. I thought I would do the same in her case. This is the real story, from a radio interview I heard today.
Rescue policeman David Key came on duty at 4pm, Saturday February 7th 2009. The police radio channels were inundated with chaotic calls. He thought it unlikely they would get a chance at performing many rescues due to the sheer speed of the wind and fires, but soon enough there came a call from the Channel 9 news helicopter: there were people trapped at a property on Coombs Road, Kinglake. David joined his crew in their helicopter and they were soon over the fires. Directed to the right spot by the news helicopter they performed all the requisite safety checks. Satisfied they were in a good position to go, David was winched down to the waiting people.
Just to set the scene, the temperature hit 46C (unofficially it went over 50C), the wind strength was likened to hurricane force, well over 100km per hour, fire-generated weather phenomena included tornadoes of fire. The fires, driven by the southerly change, were roaring up the side of the Kinglake mountain toward the town, and had already wiped out several towns including Strathewen. The house over which the helicopter was hovering was almost completely surrounded by fire.
The house belonged to a lady called Juliet. When David reached the ground she told him she had to take her dog with her. David (so calm in his telling) said that was no problem. He put Juliet in the rescue harness and they sandwiched the dog between them. On the verge of giving the go ahead to be winched up, a wind gust hit the line, knocking them off balance. The dog was spooked and managed to wriggle free. Now, this is where the real story departs from the reported one. David looked up and found the winch cable behaving in an alarming manner, tightening and going slack. Above, the helicopter was struggling, and even more alarming, beginning to drop. What was happening was the fires all around them were so hot, so high, that they were sucking all the oxygen out of the atmosphere. The air became so thin that it could not support the helicopter’s weight. The crew made a snap decision and cut the winch cable.
So, Policeman David was on the ground with Juliet, her dog, several neighbours and three horses. And fire all around them. They got into their cars, two horses in a float and the third with a coat on who was led by a rein held by one of the people in the cars. The driveway to the house was on fire. The length of the road was on fire. The helicopter directed them to the only way out – through the flaming driveway, down the road to a fire track. They went in convoy, at the speed of the trotting horse – who was remarkably calm despite cinders falling on his head, mane and tail. Out on to Coombs Road, David directed everyone with professional calm.
And here is the nugget of wonder in this story. As they made their way down the road, which was burning madly on both sides, they were joined by other refugees. Out of the trees came deer – feral animals to this country – and echidnas and wombats, just as desperate to survive. Perhaps they were drawn by the horse, whatever it was, they knew by instinct that to follow that movement was perhaps their only chance to live. And this little convoy / Noah’s ark on hoof and paw made it to the fire track and then out into a paddock that the fires had avoided. Juliet looked back to her house but could only see flame. She was convinced it was gone.
But. Her house survived – the only one on Coombs Road not destroyed. Everyone in David’s group, human and animal, survived. David rejoined his helicopter and went on to rescue others. This is one of those little stories that happen within a major horrific event and they often don’t get told. They should though, particularly in light of the 13 poor people who lost their lives on Coombs Road that day, including Brian Naylor and his wife – Brian was the retired long term news reader on Melbourne’s Channel 9 news, coincidentally or not, the channel whose news helicopter directed the police rescue crew to Juliet’s house.
So, contrary to the little snippet of this story that was reported after the fires, where people tut-tutted about a silly woman putting her dog before her own safety, had that dog not wriggled free at just that moment, David and Juliet and her doggie might have been dangling halfway up the winch wire when the helicopter lost height. That might have delayed the wire being cut, and could conceivably have caused the helicopter to crash, right on top of the people and horses, in the path of the fire, almost certainly resulting in more deaths.
Moral of the story: pay attention to the instincts of animals, particularly in a crisis. And hug a policeman today.
Do a search on Google maps for Coombs Road, Kinglake.