JUST after midnight on a stormy night in December last year, a utility crossed the road near the junction of the South Gippsland and Bass Highways and hit a west-bound van head on. When the Loch CFA rescue unit arrived at the scene, they found the ute driver in an ambulance. The driver of the van had died.
A crew from the major collision unit completed their work around 4am but needed daylight to take more photographs. The crew from the rescue unit maintained their vigil through the night, waiting for clearance to free the trapped man.
Finally, as morning came, they got to work. They cut into the vehicle’s pillars then carefully pulled away the shattered vehicle from around the man. When they finished, he was sitting free and undisturbed in the driver’s seat. Only then was he gently moved.
What leads ordinary men and women – farmers, shop-workers, truck drivers – to volunteer to perform a service like this? To be willing to be called out at any time, day or night, to deal with what are often horrifying and traumatic circumstances?
The Loch CFA formed its rescue unit in 1989. There’d been a car crash at Almurta and a mother of three infants had died. According to local identity Greig Barry, “The Loch blokes reckoned that if they’d had a rescue unit they may have saved her. They worked like billyo to raise the money – dug up sleepers from the Wonthaggi-Nyora rail track and sold them. It was hard work.”
Greig joined soon after the unit formed. On an exceptionally wet and windy day he happened to be working with a CFA member whose pager rang. A light plane with seven passengers had crashed on the Loch-Wonthaggi Road at Trewins Corner. They found a crazy scene: scattered bits of cypress tree, a wingless plane, the passengers still on board. It was blowing a gale, too dangerous for a helicopter to land. Greig drove three passengers in an ambulance to Korumburra. Ultimately all on board survived and Greig joined the Loch CFA rescue unit.
Times have changed. In the old days, skills and equipment were cruder. Winches pulled cars apart. Today they use hydraulic rams. Modern cars are stronger and safer, more complicated. Airbags have to be got round. The Loch unit now works with a computer system that maps the design of 30,000 vehicle models. Rescue units from all over the state come annually to the General Motors Holden site near Grantville to practise cutting open different cars, sharing new ideas and methods. Learning never stops.
The emotional and psychological toll on members requires constant vigilance. “You might think you can do all these things,” Greig says, “but things happen that you can never be prepared for.” Numbers around the crashed vehicle are restricted. “It’s easier to deal with two or three members rather than 10.” And it’s not just the damaged bodies. He knows the trauma of taking a parent to see a son or daughter who has died. “It’s worse if it’s someone you know. They’re things you never forget.”
Debriefing sessions enable the rescue unit to monitor the impact of serious accidents. The chaplain and psychologists, paid for by CFA, and peers may follow up ongoing trauma.
The unit also understands the difficulty of being with people who have died. After the intensive two-year training period, members are deployed according to their readiness for different tasks.
Greig has heard people talk of their work at the Granville train crash and the Port Arthur massacre. You learn from the attitudes of others, he says. Dignity and respect has become the unit’s credo. “You come to understand that the person in the vehicle is someone’s child or parent.”
The man who died that stormy night in December was Leo and Margaret Wilson’s son, Anthony, the kind of man who on holiday in a village in Cambodia, hearing that the local kids had never been to the beach, hired a bus to take them on a day trip. And bought them all a toothbrush and a pair of shoes. And paid for sports equipment at the school.
A 33-year-old disc jockey and sound technician, he was driving home to Pascoe Vale after a gig at Mirboo North Secondary College. At Leongatha he’d called in on a DJ protégé. Later he’d pulled over at Korumburra for a meal and a catch-up sleep. The rescue team found a notice in the wreck that read: “No need for concern. Just having a nap. Be on the road again soon.”
When police knocked on the door at 4am and the devastated family asked where he was, they were shocked to be told he was still at the scene of the accident. “But who’s out there with him?” they asked. “Volunteers”, said the police, “the local rescue unit.”
The following week, Anthony’s brother Paul rang to thank the rescue unit for their care of their son and brother. The family wanted to know if instead of flowers, mourners at the funeral could be invited to donate to the unit. Surprised and moved, the members gratefully accepted.
The Wilson family came to their January meeting with envelopes containing $1500. Louise, his sister, later added $500, the proceeds from a work raffle. “It really touched the members,” Greig says, “the whole lot of them.” The unit spent $700 on a windscreen cutter, the first of its kind in Australia. The rest of the donation went on a new lighting set-up and battery-powered tools.
Today, members of the Wilson family and friends visited the Loch CFA to accept a framed memorial of Anthony and expression of appreciation of their extraordinary donation. The new equipment was on display. Brief, heartfelt speeches were made. Strangers brought together by tragedy; grief bridged by acts of compassion, respect and gratitude.
And bringing meaning to a tragic event, linking all parties, is a good man, Anthony Wilson. “He was that kind of person,” Paul says. “The many acts of kindness he had done throughout his life were reflected in the sacrifice and efforts of local volunteers that night.”