Firefighters who saved lives and sustained injuries at a catastrophic truck crash and explosion south of Charleville in September were honoured for their actions of exceptional bravery at an awards ceremony in Charleville yesterday.
In recognition of their heroism at the explosion, Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QFES) Acting Commissioner Katarina Carroll presented Lieutenants Jake Sullivan and Peter Hackwood with the Commissioner’s Medal for Valour and firefighters Nathan Thompson and Clinten McCarthy with the Commissioner’s Commendation for Bravery Award.
Fire Communications Officers Leigh Murphy and James Harris were awarded with Commissioner’s Unit Citations for their extraordinary professionalism during the incident.
Around 9.30pm on Friday 5 September 2014, two fire crews responded to a truck rollover on the Mitchell Highway, 30 kilometres south of Charleville. Risking their lives, Lieutenants Jake Sullivan and Peter Hackwood made the heroic decision to remain on scene and attend to the injured driver, knowing that the truck carried more than 50 tonnes of Ammonium Nitrate and a detonation was likely.
While firefighters were administering first aid to the driver and evacuating civilians from the site, a blast so powerful it blew a five-metre-wide crater in the Mitchell Highway occurred, completely destroying the truck, two bridges, severely damaging two fire appliances and injuring eight people, including the truck driver, four firefighters, two bystanders and a police officer.
Speaking on behalf of the firefighters involved in the incident, Lieutenant Jake Sullivan said the truck had been on fire for some time before firefighters arrived on scene and there was no evidence of what the truck was carrying, due to the severity of the crash and the intense heat from the fire.
“Gathering information from Jimmy Batemen and Timmy Bunyen [two truck drivers who were first on scene], was our only hope,” Mr Sullivan said.
“From several small explosions, gut instincts were telling us the situation was deteriorating. All of a sudden the first significant explosion arose and we knew we were running out of time.
“Two firefighters [Nathan Thompson and Clinten McCarthy] were given direction to relocate to the second fire appliance and set up exclusion zones one kilometre away.
“We couldn’t leave the truck driver laying there, that would have meant our job would not have been finished. I’m sure anybody in that situation would do the same.
“There was still a chance of survival, but in times like this the thought doesn’t appear to cross your mind.
“We were all trying to remove the injured truck driver and get him out of the danger zone when it turned bad.
“Nathan and Clinten managed to get just 50 metres up the road. That’s how quick it all happened.”
Lieutenant Peter Hackwood said to receive an award of this nature was an honour, however, the ultimate reward was that everybody survived the explosion and were on the road to recovery.
“Our families now have something to look back on and remember a happy ending to such a long drawn out recovery,” Mr Hackwood said.
“We don’t do it to be recognised, we do it to help people when and wherever there is a possibility. Every time we look at this award, we will think of the successful outcome that was achieved by all.
“A huge thanks goes out to all employers of auxiliary and volunteer firefighters. Without these people and their colleagues to cover them while on fire calls it would be extremely difficult to provide such a service to the community.
“A special mention must go out to Fire Communication Officers Leigh Murphy and James Harris. These two people were our lifeline when communication was in our favour on this night.
“From QFES, the Queensland Police Service (QPS), Queensland Ambulance Service (QAS), State Emergency Service (SES), Charleville Hospital staff, the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS), CareFlight, Murweh Shire Council, Toowoomba Base Hospital, to whoever else we may have missed, we cannot thank you enough for all you efforts.
“A big thank you to all QFES staff who supported us in every possible way for a safe and speedy recovery. We can’t wait to get back on the trucks and support our community again.”
Acting QFES Commissioner Katarina Carroll said the Commissioner’s Medal for Valour and Commendation for Bravery were two of the highest honours QFES could award serving officers.
“Despite all four firefighters sustaining significant injuries, these heroic officers did not falter in their mission to search for and rescue those at the explosion site, a sign of their resilience under extreme circumstances and dedication to the job,” Ms Carroll said.
“Each person on scene displayed considerable bravery and I have nothing but admiration for each attending firefighter, the bystanders first on site, the injured truck driver and the Charleville police officers and paramedics. It is a miracle no-one lost their life.”
Ms Carroll also recognised the outstanding professionalism shown by Fire Communications Officers Leigh Murphy and James Harris on the night of the explosion.
“Leigh and James were responsible for frontline communications during this event and after a series of lost communications with the crews on scene, received a ‘red, red, red’ priority message which required the utmost diligence and concentration to ensure firefighters on scene received the highest level of support,” she said.
“The rapid response of resources and collection of information that followed can be attributed directly to these two communication officers.”
QFES South Western Assistant Commissioner Tom Dawson said the Charleville community and firefighting family continued to rally behind the firefighters.
“We are all incredibly proud of the bravery these firefighters demonstrated that night,” Mr Dawson said.
“QFES is committed to supporting the four firefighters and their families during their individual recoveries from injuries sustained from the explosion.
“In addition to the QFES awards, I look forward to the civilians and other emergency services personnel involved in the incident receiving appropriate recognition for their actions, at a later date.”
Firefighters from Cunnamulla, Miles and Roma and former A/Inspector of Charleville Command, Keith Blann, also received Assistant Commissioner awards at the ceremony for their work following the explosion.
Award recipients include:
Commissioner’s Medal for Valour
Lieutenant Peter Hackwood, Charleville Fire and Rescue Station
Lieutenant Jake Sullivan, Charleville Fire and Rescue Station
The Commissioner’s Medal for Valour Award is awarded to an officer who performs an act of exceptional bravery in hazardous circumstances where there has been a clear and significant risk to life. It is the highest award available to a QFES officer.
Commissioner’s Commendation for Bravery Award
Firefighter Nathan Thompson, Charleville Fire and Rescue Station
Firefighter Clinten McCarthy, Charleville Fire and Rescue
The Commissioner’s Commendation for Bravery Award is awarded to an officer who performs an act of bravery in hazardous circumstances.
Commissioner’s Unit Citation
Fire Communications Officer Leigh Murphy (to be awarded at a later date)
Fire Communications Officer James Harris
Assistant Commissioner Unit Commendations
Keith Blann – former A/ Inspector, Charleville Command
Timothy Higgins – Cunnamulla Fire and Rescue Station
Niam Branfield – Cunnamulla Fire and Rescue Station
Karl Girdler – Cunnamulla Fire and Rescue Station
David White – Cunnamulla Fire and Rescue Station
Ethan Capewell – Cunnamulla Fire and Rescue Station
Bradley Lambourne – Roma Fire and Rescue Station
David Jones – Roma Fire and Rescue Station
Michael O’Brien – Roma Fire and Rescue Station
Clinton Reid – Mitchell Fire and Rescue Station
Stacey Turner – Mitchell Fire and Rescue Station