How would you react in an emergency?
Tuesday, June 14, 2016 - 20:30

What’s it like being first on the scene of an emergency? How do we react to being thrown into a situation way outside our comfort zone?

Whether we’re trained emergency workers or just out surfing with a mate, there are varied responses to being first on the scene. Some react without thinking, driven by a base instinct to jump in and help without concern for getting hurt. Others freeze to take stock of the situation, consider the potential dangers and weigh up the risks and benefits before diving in. Some remain aloof, or flee altogether.

What would you do if a colleague or fellow student suddenly fired bullets around the room, killing and injuring many? You’re near the door, a clean escape is simple, you could just follow your classmates to safety. Or do you push forward and try to stop the gunman in his tracks? This is the situation Alastair Boast found himself in.

In March, Joel Trist was out surfing when his nearby friend was attacked by a shark. Joel’s instinct to save him kicked in immediately. The potential for the shark to attack again only crossed Joel’s mind as he paddled Brett to shore.

Responding to emergencies is part of Peter Davidson’s job. But his fortitude was truly tested during the infamous 1998 Sydney-Hobart yacht race as he was pushed to his limits, and managed to save eight sailors in one treacherous hour. The decisions never get any easier.

This week, Insight hears from first responders about how they felt, why they acted and what they thought and feared as they dealt with the responsibility of being first on the scene.




Join the discussion by using the #insightsbs hashtag on Twitter, or posting on our Facebook page.



JENNY BROCKIE:  Good to have you with us tonight.  Ah Joel, just recently, you were surfing early one evening with your friend on the NSW south coast.  Can you tell us what happened?  

JOEL:  So, I had received a phone call from Brett in the afternoon saying do you want to go for a surf?  Time went by, we were having a laugh, sharing waves together.  And all of a sudden I heard this terrible scream.  Um and I, I looked up and I knew exactly what was happening . . . 

JENNY BROCKIE:  You knew . . .  

JOEL: . . . at that moment.  Um I think . . . 

JENNY BROCKIE:  What did you know?  

JOEL:  Well, I knew from his scream obviously that it wasn’t right.  Um and from, from the amount of splashing I thought um, well, this is happening.  This is - He’s getting attacked by a shark. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  What did you do?   

JOEL:  Well, I think my first instinct was, oh, I have to get over to him.  

JENNY BROCKIE:  Did you weigh it up at all?  Did you think about paddling away, trying to get the hell out of there?  

JOEL:  Yeah.  I think it did come across my mind um for that split second.  But I think just seeing everything that was going on at that time, I just thought I needed, needed to get over there and help out. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Agie, where were you?  

AGIE:  I was sitting on the beach um watching the boys surfing.  So um unfortunately they were about a good three, four hundred metres away from where I was sitting.  Um so I didn’t . . . 

JENNY BROCKIE:  So when did you realise something was wrong?  

AGIE:  Um I didn’t actually see the shark attack Brettie as such.  Um however, I did see um Brett’s board hit the shoreline, and that was the first alarm bell for me. From what I could see, um Joel had put Brettie on top of his surfboard and started paddling into shore and then I could hear Joel screaming at me, saying come, help, come, come babe, help.  And so I bolted over and without the boys saying anything I knew straightaway.  I saw Brett’s face - he was grey - um and I saw his extensive um leg injury, and I knew that my job was to go and call for help. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Let’s just backtrack a little bit, um Joel.  What happened when you got to Brett?   

JOEL:   Well, when I got to him he was floundering- floundering around a little bit and I, knowing what it was but not knowing the extent of it, I- the first thing I said to him was, um how is it?  And he looked, looked at me, um grey in the face, and said it’s not good.  He said the shark actually hit him three times ah before it left.  So um but at that stage I, I didn’t know where it was.  Um but I, I was thinking about him, getting him into shore . . . 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And getting him in. 

JOEL:  Yeah. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  So when you were bringing him in, did you think about the shark then, about whether it might attack you, or not?  

JOEL:   I, I have to admit, when I was paddling him in, was looking back um and at that stage I could see the blood flowing out um towards the sea when we were coming in.  And I thought there could be a chance it will come back here and have another go at us. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Now, Agie, you’re an intensive care nurse . . .  

AGIE:  Yes . . . 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Which is interesting!  What did you do?   

AGIE:  Um to be honest I actually felt very helpless.  Um I was not in my comfort zone whatsoever and, you know, when - I have dealt with many um, you know, deteriorating patients, emergency situations.  Um however, a) I had no help, um we had no-one around us, and secondly, I didn’t have any equipment, and um and I guess thirdly I knew that my role at the time and my job was to get help, otherwise - We just knew that every minute was precious, so um I just bolted. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   You got a tourniquet onto him pretty quickly?  

JOEL:  I did.  So once I’d got him to the shore um I, I did notice that his leg rope had been bitten through by the shark, and so I grabbed that, um which was um still attached to his ankle and used that as a tourniquet to tie it as tight as I could to the top of his leg. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  You called the emergency number.   

AGIE:  I did, yeah. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  How long did it take for them to get there, and what was it like in the meantime?  

AGIE:  Um I think I was quite descriptive; I’m not going to lie.  I was in a lot of shock as well, and I guess um in the situation that we were in ah it’s 50 times harder when it’s someone that you actually know.  So I just said, look, we need help as soon as you can get here, we’re going to lose our mate, he’s been bitten by a shark, he’s got an extensive wound injury, hand injury. . . 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And it was a massive leg injury, yeah?  

JOEL:  It was.  It was about three quarters of his ah quad that had been taken off.  So … 

JENNY BROCKIE:  You’re just average surfers going out for the day, you know, with your mate.  Um had you ever been in an emergency situation like this before, anything?  

JOEL:  No, no, nowhere near anything along these lines. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   And what was it like suddenly having all that responsibility?   

JOEL:  I think, apart from the panic that was going on, um I did feel we have to do something here, otherwise we’re going to lose one of our best friends. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And were there any surprises for you in the way that you both reacted?  

JOEL:  Yeah, I think for myself I, I’m usually renowned for fainting and other - at the start of any form of blood. So I think seeing, seeing the extent of the wound and then being able to control myself and actually help out, I was surprised.  I’ve had a skin test before for allergies and even pricking the skin I was out! 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Wow.  And Agie, obviously for you were there surprises?   

AGIE:  I guess I was surprised and, again, I think I felt hopeless.  Like you know, I couldn’t be the hands-on nurse that I wanted to be.  So you know, it’s just one of those things that um you never expect to happen, and I guess it’s any partners or friend’s worst nightmare.  

JENNY BROCKIE:  Alistair, you were sitting in a small class at Monash University in 2002 when one of your fellow students suddenly started shooting people . . .  


JENNY BROCKIE: . . . in that room.  Describe what happened? 

ALISTAIR:  Well, for me um it was a day like any other and I was running late to the class!  And when I got to the classroom all of the seats pretty much in the room had been filled, um people . . . 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Now, this is a small group.  It’s about 12 people . . .  

ALISTAIR:  Yeah, small group, about 12, yes.  


ALISTAIR:  And everyone had sort of arrived, sitting with their friends and I sort of came in last, closed the door and sat down. From there, um my memory is a little bit hazy, but I just hear - I remember hearing one sort of loud, loud noise, um and instinctively I um I just hit the - hit the deck, hit the ground and sort of curled out almost like a little foetus into a sort of small little ball, and I had at that time absolutely no idea what was going on. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  But you’d hit the ground, which is interesting . . .  

ALISTAIR:  I had, I had. 

JENNY BROCKIE: So you must’ve known it was something dangerous? . . .  

ALISTAIR:  I think just a loud noise.  It felt like there was a pause and I was able to look up, and I really did look up and I saw the lecturer, Lee, um sort of on the other side of the room starting to move towards the back.  And as I turned I saw a student in the back corner of the room, and he was the only one standing.  And he was sort of looking down at something, and in that moment um I stood up and charged diagonally across the room to um to that student and…

JENNY BROCKIE:  Had you seen a gun?  

ALISTAIR:  I had seen something; I didn’t know what it was at the time. I had been doing martial arts for some time and maybe it was just an instinctive threat assessment and that was as far as, as far as it went and I tackled the gunman with the assistance of Lee.  I just distinctly remember grabbing his hands and holding his hands down against the floor um and waiting for the um, we were waiting for the police to arrive. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Now, what did you see in the room?  

ALISTAIR:  The rest of the room had pretty much cleared out.  If people had been able to get to the door and they’d been able to leave the room.  And all that was left was two people who weren’t moving on the floor and another, another student, um Laurie, who was on the floor sort of groaning as well.  And it wasn’t until then that we started to realise, hey, something serious here has happened.  And I started calling for help, I think. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Mm.  Now, Brett, you were down the hallway at the time.  What did you hear?  And what did you do initially? 

BRETT:  So I was in my office down the corridor from the room that Alistair just described, and ah I heard a bunch of loud bang bang bang noises, which I assumed was noisy builders in the building.  And ah just ah kind of paid a little bit of attention to it, but not too much attention, until I heard a bit of yelling and screaming in the corridor and someone running down the corridor towards our offices saying, he’s got a gun, he’s got a gun!  So at that point I figured out it wasn’t the builders, that it was something else.  So I ah got up ah from my office and went down the corridor towards where the room actually was and just to figure out what was going on. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And then what did you do?  

BRETT:  When I looked in the room I saw two people, our memories are not exactly the same, I saw two people actually sitting in their chairs who were sitting completely still, because they’d been shot dead.  And in the corner of the room I saw Lee and Alistair holding the gunman down.  Um and so I figured out that this was a fairly bad situation, so I actually went back down the corridor and asked a colleague of mine to ring the police, and then came back to the door.  And I just stood at the door and watched. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  What was going through your mind as you were standing at the door?   

BRETT:  I was thinking that something needs to be done, but I wasn’t particularly keen on going inside that room because it was a pretty unpleasant place to be.  There were two dead people there that I could obviously see were dead just from looking.  And there was a smell of gunpowder or whatever it is that, you know, it was an unpleasant, very horrible place to be.  And I just stood at the door and… 


BRETT:  Froze, yeah. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  How long for, do you think?  

BRETT:  Oh probably about 15 or 20 seconds, and then the only reason I did anything different to that was because Lee in the process of charging towards this bloke had actually been shot twice, so Lee was bleeding a fair bit and he was holding this bloke down, thanks - with, with Alistair, but obviously wasn’t coping too well.  So he saw me and called out to me and said, I need help, you need to come over and take over from me.  So I reluctantly came in and Lee collapsed on the floor and I took over the job of holding the gunman down. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  You are being admirably honest about this, Brett, about your reluctance, which I think a lot of people could relate to!  So really, it was someone saying, look, I’m hurt, I need your help, that pushed you through that door?  

BRETT:   Yeah, yes, that’s right, yeah.  I should point out that my job was fairly minor because Alistair is a big, scary bloke!  And that gunman wasn’t going anywhere; he had him absolutely pinned down.  So I just sort of turned up and just put a token hand on the shoulder and kind of protected…

It was kind of my job, I guess!  Ah so I figured, well, I’m not doing my physically, but I can at least try and keep people calm, as it were.  So actually it’s one point I do remember the gunman saying that he was feeling - he was getting worked up because he was feeling - He was in pain because Alistair was holding him a bit tight, so I just tried to encourage everybody to, you know, you don’t have to hold him quite that tight, I remember saying that to you, ah and just to stay calm.   

JENNY BROCKIE:  How many people were killed and injured?   

BRETT:  Two, two people were killed and about six or seven injured.  

JENNY BROCKIE:  Did your own reactions in that situation surprise either of you at all?  

ALISTAIR:  For me, it’s more in hindsight that I think it was more surprising.  I’d like to think other rational people might look at the door and say, that’s the best way to go.  Um if I was in that situation again I don’t know what you would do or how you’d react or how I’d react. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Mm.  What about you, Brett?  Did anything surprise you about your reaction?  

BRETT:   Ah no, I don’t think so.  I think, I think I figure if there’s a problem somewhere that you have to go and at least see if you can help.  So that’s kind of the way I would naturally respond.  And likewise the thought of walking into a room with a bunch of scary things happening is something that I don’t want to do.  So that response also didn’t surprise me.  Um after that, I didn’t have much choice but to do what I had to do.  

JENNY BROCKIE:  And what about the people who ran away in that situation?  Did you think about that later?  

BRETT:  Yeah.  I remember talking with some of them afterwards and I remember we actually had a gathering of all of the people involved three or four days later, and the heroes were there and the heroes, or this hero at least, was there.  And everybody admires Alistair for what he did.  But somehow we wanted to communicate to those that had run away that the way in which they dealt with the situation was equally courageous, in the way they were caring for each other and supporting each other in that time.  So bravery expresses itself in lots of different ways.  

JENNY BROCKIE:  Um Jessie, there were people around you as well, weren’t there, when you were attacked by a man in the street three years ago.  What did all those people around you do when it happened?  

JESSIE:  Um there were three other women on the street, I remember, um and they were looking at the situation.  They knew what was happening.  They didn’t flee from the situation.  But they appeared to be frozen, like they were overwhelmed and they didn’t know what they could do to help. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And what had happened to you?  What had the man done?  

JESSIE:  Um so I was walking down the street.  It was about four o’clock on a Tuesday and we’d just gone grocery shopping.  Um and I saw a man walking towards me, and I made eye contact with the man, as you do when you pass someone on the street, and as we passed each other he darted, and attacked me and pushed me into a driveway.  He was putting his hands up my shirt and scratching me and stuff.  And he stood back and was sort of ah masturbating like looking at us, just a metre or so away from my face.  

JENNY BROCKIE:  Clare, you were with Jessie, your sister when this happened.  How did you react when the man attacked her?  

CLARE:  Um so when the man first grabbed her and put her in the driveway, I remember my first instinct was just to scream.  Um so I screamed really loudly and I was screaming, get off her!  And I was quite aggressive.  I kind of surprised myself how aggressive I was, and I was… 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Aggressive verbally?  

CLARE:  Yes, yeah, only verbally.  Um that I stood there, kind of yelling at this guy, get off her, get off her, stop, stop, stop!  So um so I just yelled and screamed and but didn’t do anything physical to get closer to him or anything like that, which I sort of um, sort of bugged me later on.  But um… 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Why?  Why did it bug you later on?  

CLARE:  Because I would like to think that I could come up and try and push him off or to have been closer, physically closer to Jessie, so that I could, you know, make her feel like she wasn’t completely alone in the situation.  

JENNY BROCKIE:  Do you remember what went through your mind?   

CLARE:  I remember just being really, really, really scared, and it’s almost like the memory, it’s not the same as other memories.  It sort of almost seems like it was just a total tunnel as to what was happening right in front of me.  And um and I was just terrified, and I thought - My first thought was like rape.  I was like, oh my god, this is happening in broad d-daylight and I’m seeing it happen and it’s my sister.  So I got out my phone and called the police.  But in between that time I was looking around the street and trying to get people’s attention.  There was one woman I remember in particular who was on the other side of the street a little bit further down, and I just yelled at her, like help!  And she didn’t move or react.  She just kind of stood there.  

JENNY BROCKIE:  Rachael, why do some people leap straight into dangerous situations, when other people don’t, or other people just run away?   

DR RACHAEL SHARMAN, UNIVERSITY OF THE SUNSHINE COAST:  Well, it’s fairly primitive.  It comes back to basic fight or flight.  And certain people, you know, we do see predispositions.  Certain people with certain personality types, so people who are naturally a little bit more anxious, perhaps a little more neurotic, they tend to be more wired towards all of the bad things that will happen if they, if they intervene.  Whereas people who tend to be a little bit more open to experience and certainly people a little bit more extroverted and impulsive tend to be more wired towards the reward.  So I’ll go towards my mate and I’ll get him off the board and I’ll save his life, as opposed to, oh my goodness, I just need to get out of here. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Does that strike a chord with any of you?   Anyone prepared to own up to their personality on national television?  

BRETT:  Yeah, that’s pretty accurate, yes!  

JENNY BROCKIE:  And Rachael, is there any way of predicting who will be effective as a first responder?  And we’re talking about lay people here; we’re going to talk about people whose job it is in a moment.   

DR RACHAEL SHARMAN:  In terms of what’s going to be effective, it’s really tricky because we’ve all - These are, these are you know relatively positive stories we’re talking about tonight.  But we also know people who have jumped in and made the situation worse or indeed got themselves beaten up and killed because they’ve made a decision to approach.  So it’s not about effective.  I think that probably comes back to luck of the draw. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And what about the freezing response?  You mentioned that.  

DR RACHAEL SHARMAN:  Yeah, two, two primary hypotheses.  So the one is really, really primitive.  It’s a very basic reptilian hind-brain kind of response where you freeze to play dead.  Second one is a bit more interesting.  The freeze response also again stops you from processing information.  So this is why we’ve got a lot of problems with memory, particularly over here.  You’ve literally not laid down the memory at all, and you’ll never get it, it never got there in the first place.  And it seems to be a protective response, so we don’t become so overwhelmed that the situation, you know, basically drives us insane, that we’re so overwhelmed, we can’t escape, we can’t fight, we’ve just got to do what we’ve got to do and just disassociate from the situation.  And then that way I won’t be too psychologically injured.



Sydney to Hobart Race 1998. 


JENNY BROCKIE:  Peter, that’s you on the wire . . .  

PETER:  Yes.  Yes, it is. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  . . . there, rescuing people in the Sydney to Hobart yacht race in 1998.  You were the first winchman on the scene.  Describe those conditions for me?  

PETER:  Um the best way I can describe it is like ah something you expect to see in a movie.  We had no idea of the severity of the storm on the way out and we could see the vessel in distress Stand Aside down there, bobbing around in in the ocean one moment, then these waves would roll through 20, 30 feet high and you’d lose sight of her in these, in these waves.  And we were circling and hovering around the top of them for the first 15 minutes we were out there, just trying to figure out what on earth it is we could do.  

JENNY BROCKIE:  So you were making a plan on the run, once you got there.  How much did you know before you went out?  

PETER:  Well, only that there was a yacht in distress and there were 12 men onboard and that everyone needed immediate evacuation.  That’s all we knew.  

JENNY BROCKIE:  Mm.  Now, six people died in that race . . .  

PETER:  That’s right, yeah. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  What did you think when you first looked at those conditions, knowing that you were going to be the first person that was going on that winch to try and get them?   

PETER:  I just thought it was absolutely impossible.  I didn’t think I could rescue anybody, and I just thought they were going to perish.  And I just, it was pointless me being there.  Um I was the least experienced person in the helicopter at that stage.  And I just looked out the window, just blown away with what we were seeing, and I was just thinking this is just pointless; there’s no way we’re going to rescue anybody. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  So were you thinking about saying, no, can’t be done?  

PETER:  I was.  I, to be honest, I was.  It didn’t sit comfortable with me just to have to fly off and leave them.  And my initial reaction was well, maybe if I just get out the door and they see me have a go, that’ll satisfy them that, you know, we’ve at least had a go and we couldn’t do it.  

JENNY BROCKIE:  Rod, you were one of the sailors who was on that boat, the Stand Aside.  Um what was it like on the boat while you were waiting to be rescued?  

ROD:  Um first thing, I’m pleased you did hang around, Pete! Yeah, it was, we’d been in that situation for a couple of hours and dealt with the people with injuries.  We had the, an ABC helicopter was watching us, so we had communication.  We heard that the helicopter rescue was on the way. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Now, your mast had broken and the cabin had broken open.  Is that right?  

ROD:  Yeah, it’s like an open boat that should’ve had a cabin.  The mast was gone, so ah we’d tumble down a wave and that’s how we’d come up.  So the boat, the boat was sound but it had a lot of water in it, so we were bucketing the water and waves would come and fill it up again.  

JENNY BROCKIE:  So Peter, you get lowered into the water for the first time.  What happens?   

PETER:  Well, the first time I went down um I was hit immediately by this wave, which I can only estimate to be somewhere around 40 feet high, just the biggest moving mass of any substance I’d ever seen.  And it just, I remember it just swallowing me up and tumbling me over and over.  And they’d try and pinpoint me into the raft and they’d miss, so I’d land, either land back in the water and get washed away or the helicopter would be blown off course by the winds that were out there, or the yacht would be dragged a little bit further on, which would drag the life raft with it... 

JENNY BROCKIE:  The plan was to get the sailors one by one into the raft so you could get them out and up on the, onto the chopper . . .  

PETER:  That’s right.  Yeah.  We couldn’t um, it wasn’t safe to winch down onto the hard deck of the yacht itself, so the plan was to have these guys jump into the life raft and we’d rescue them from there. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Mm.  Okay, so that first time, did you get anyone?  

PETER:  No.  I spent 20 minutes in the water just battling to try a-and get to them.  And at the end of the 20 minute mark I was exhausted at that stage and I just felt myself suddenly being winched back up into the helicopter.  And it was right at that time I knew and I’m pretty sure we all knew that if we didn’t come up with some other strategy, some other technique and adapt to these conditions somehow, well then we would fail and we would be going home empty-handed. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   So what did you do?  

PETER:  So I said to the winch crewman, just I need more cable, I need more winch cable let out.  And what he was trying to do was pinpoint me directly into the life raft, keeping the cable nice and taut so it wouldn’t get tangled around any of the yacht. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Because it’s heavy, yeah?  The cable is really heavy . . .  

PETER:  It’s a six millimetre cable.  It’s stainless steel, it’s very heavy to drag through the water, so the plan was to just throw me in the ocean as close as you can to the yacht, to the life raft, let out a lot more loose winch cable, and if the opportunity arose I would try and swim that last bit of distance to the life raft.  And it took um three or four more attempts um when we did that.  But I eventually got a break in the ocean state and just started kicking my legs like crazy towards the raft, suddenly found myself beside it, grabbed hold of it and swung myself over and in.  And I had the first survivor! 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And how did that feel?  

PETER:  It felt absolutely amazing.  It was just - I was, I was absolutely elated.  It’s the greatest feeling of satisfaction I’ve ever had in my life.  I’ve never felt the strength of this feeling either prior to this incident or since this incident, as I did on that day. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  How many sailors did you rescue like that on that day?  

PETER:  Eight. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Rod, you were the eighth?  

ROD:  I was lucky, mm.  

JENNY BROCKIE:  What were you thinking as he was taking the others up one by one?  

ROD:  Oh, I was hoping my turn might come sooner or later!  And I was doing a lot of learning.  I was watching, watching how the other guys were - what Pete was doing, how the operation was happening.  So while I was still working on the boat I thought, well, when my turn comes I’m going to know exactly what to do. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  What do you remember about Peter?  

ROD:  Um yeah, that’s - Look, it was the focus was the biggest thing, it was the absolute focus.  He knew what he was doing.  Um there was no courtesies, we didn’t sort of politely meet each other.  It was just I knew what to do, he strapped me on and we were out of there.  

JENNY BROCKIE:  How does that match with what you were feeling doing the eighth rescue?  

PETER:  I was absolutely exhausted.  I um I couldn’t talk to any of them.  I just had no power in my voice to get anything out. When you’re ready to go you hold your arm out horizontal, you give the thumbs up to the winch crewman and he can see that you’re ready to go.  I got my arm out about half way and it just collapsed down by my side.  And I tried to get it out again to give the thumbs up, and again it collapsed down by my side.  And I think it was some assistance from Rod who helped hold my arm out there at one stage so I could give the signal that the winch crewman finally got the idea already to go.  And then, and then out we were winched. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And once you got Rod into the chopper, how were you then?  

PETER:  I knew that that I was beaten and it was all over for me I just couldn’t continue. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Mm, and you were vomiting?  

PETER:  I was vomiting and dry retching and I actually lost a little bit over Rod, bringing him up on the hook there! 

JENNY BROCKIE:   He vomited on your head, I understand.  Is that right?    

ROD:  He told me later.  That was a year later.  He said, by the way… 

JENNY BROCKIE:  I think that’s a small price to pay, really . . .  

ROD:   It was. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  . . . for what happened.  Mark, you’re an emergency chopper pilot in Queensland.  Now, five years ago you were first on the scene in the Lockyer Valley floods.  Can you describe what you saw piloting that chopper when you got to the scene of those floods?  

MARK:  When we arrived in the area, Jenny, the place was just in devastation.  There was water moving everywhere, there was debris floating past, there were trucks, there were cars, there were planes.  There were structures being destroyed before our eyes.  And out of all this mess were rooftops that were poking out, and on top of those rooftops were people sitting there. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  What was going through your mind when you first saw that, all those people on the rooftops?  

MARK:  Well, when we actually arrived on the scene and found the devastation that was happening in the Lockyer Valley, we were all in a bit of shock.  It was almost like there was a complete silence in the aircraft and I started manoeuvring the aircraft and the crew just said things like, oh there are people over there, there’s a baby in a capsule on that roof with some people.  There’s, oh look at that water tank.  There were just things happening that we slowly processed this scene in disbelief and utter shock.  Um we’d flown over this area many times in the past and it’s a beautiful valley, and now here’s this inland brown sea that seems to have come from who knows where, totally destroying the place.  So we were absolutely blown out. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  As a first responder though, what was going through your mind?  I mean you’ve got a big responsibility here looking at this scene.  What were you thinking?  

MARK:  I thought initially how are we going to do this?  That was my first thought in my head, and then I thought we can’t start going higgledy-piggledy, I can’t go and winch some people here or go and get the baby out of the capsule there.  We must do this logically because there’s so many people stuck on the roof, rooftops that we could see, and who knows who was in the water that we couldn’t see?  So we had to start from one end of town and work our way through.  

JENNY BROCKIE:  How do you focus in a situation like that? 

MARK:  You have to take the emotion out of it to some extent.  You can’t start just making it up as you go along.  We need to sort of think about how can we do this to get the most amount of people in a logical sense?  So you know, your heart is pounding, you’re manipulating the aircraft, there’s inputs from everyone, but we have to start somewhere.  So someone has to be the first and someone has to be the last.  And that is part of the very tough decision making that we, we have to do in this process when you come up against those sorts of circumstances.  

JENNY BROCKIE:  One of your most complicated rescues on that day was Fran and Ken Arndt.  Um we’ve got footage of that rescue here.  Describe for us where they were?  



Lockyer Valley Floods.


MARK:  We were moving towards a house that had some people on top of the rooftop, and they were pointing to the trees just near the house.  And as they were pointing, we thought what’s going on?  Someone must be in those trees.  We weren’t sure.  So Darren winched Mark down, the rescue crewman, into the trees.  And as the downwash hit the trees we could see these little heads sort of sitting up in the trees, looking up at us.  And then Mark was swept under the trees and then the branches closed.  There was a point there where the winch operator said to me, I’ve lost sight of him, we may have to cut the cable.  So you can imagine if we had to cut that cable, we couldn’t save anyone else there that day, and if we didn’t cut the cable, if it was snagged, it could’ve pulled the aircraft into the water and trees . . .



MARK:  . . . destroyed the machine a-and obviously done great harm to us as well. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Now, Fran and Ken, you were the ones in the trees . . . 

KEN:  Yeah. 

FRAN:  Yes. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  . . . when this happened.  How did you end up there?  Fran?   

FRAN:  Well, it was a long story because we were in our ute and ah we were trying to escape up to what we thought was higher ground, and we got so far up the road, we had this big wall of water just went straight up and over the front of the ute.  And it just picked us up like a cork and it picked the ute up; it was a big, heavy six wheeler that we had, because we’re in the timber industry.  

JENNY BROCKIE:  And you were trapped in the water?  

FRAN:  We were trapped . . . We couldn’t open the doors, the force of the water was too great. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  You got the window down though and got out?   

FRAN:  We managed.  Um after the water got sort of half way up to me, he started yelling and swearing and I told him to do something!  So he decided… 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Bit harsh!  Bit harsh!  But you know!  

FRAN:  Well, it may have been some panic.  So anyway, we managed to get to the trees and shove our legs up and over a branch and climb up into the tree. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  How long were you hanging on in the trees for?  

FRAN:  About three and a half hours.  

JENNY BROCKIE:  Three and a half hours!   

KEN:  Yeah. 

FRAN:  And all the time the water was rising more and more. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  What did you think when you saw that winchman being lowered towards you?  

FRAN:  Oh, I thought the angels of mercy were dropping out of the sky!  I tell ya!  

JENNY BROCKIE:  Let’s have a look at that.  That’s Fran. There you are, Fran.  

FRAN:  Yes, soaking wet!  

JENNY BROCKIE:  Wow.  What’s it like looking at that?  

FRAN:  Brings back a few memories.  But um they’re good ones.  You know, like I mean we’re lucky to be here and. . . 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And that’s you, Ken.  

KEN:  Yeah, yeah.  

MARK:  What’s incredible there Jenny, Ken was a tree lopper for a fair chunk of his life.  And he said after that, those trees saved his life.  He’d never cut down another tree as long as he lived!  

KEN:  Yeah, I never, I never picked a chainsaw up since. 


KEN:  Yeah.  Never picked it up - I made, made a thing that I’d never ever cut a tree down again, and that was it.  

JENNY BROCKIE:  Is there a difference as a professional being the very first one on the scene to being second or third?  

PETER:  Personally, for me, if I can see that something can be done it makes me feel a lot more comfortable and I know I can see it and go, yep, it can be done. I didn't know whether I could do this initially. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  So you are the tester of the whole situation, basically.  

PETER:  We just happened to be the very first rescue helicopter to the very first yacht in distress there at the time. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Mark, what is it particular pressure being first on the scene?  

MARK:  It felt like it to some extent, because when you turn up and you have rescue plastered all over your helicopter, there's an expectation from everyone that they are going to be rescued. That is one of the most difficult things to deal with in our industry, is that you can't save everybody. And it's a hard lesson to learn. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Joel, did you feel a particular pressure being first there, being the first person there?  

JOEL:  I think I did at the time I think, but in that time, I felt like I had to do something, because I was the only one there. I think - I'm in such awe of these stories as well. Being the only person there on the scene, I felt like if I didn't do anything, then a life was going to be lost there and then.



Christchurch Earthquake 2011. 


JENNY BROCKIE:  Lydia that footage from the Christchurch earthquake five years ago, now you’re a doctor who just happened to be there at a conference when it happened and you volunteered to help out, what did you end up doing? 

LYDIA:  So after um the earthquake we moved out of the conference centre and I ended up in the centre of Christchurch and a number of other conference attendees, other doctors, we’re surgeons, we’re urologists, um were sent in a small group to this particular building.  And there we split up into different places and I ended up at the back of the building and I was identified as being a doctor or a surgeon – I can’t remember – and in that process of removing people it became clear that there was a man who was trapped in a collapsed, partially collapsed stairwell.  But in part of making that assessment of how to remove him, I was involved and it was apparent that the only way to remove this man was to amputate both his legs because they were trapped.  

JENNY BROCKIE:  How much time did you have to make that decision to amputate his legs? 

LYDIA:  Um we had time and again there was this feeling of everything being elastic so I don’t really have a clear sense of … 

JENNY BROCKIE:  How time passed… 

LYDIA:  … how quickly or how slowly time passed…But there was time. Um he was as far in, as far as you can be, he was stable but the actual process of freeing him was done by a number of us, so I was in a team led by this very experienced fire officer and the team included an anaesthetist who had turned up with equipment, including a syringe, cannulas, medication and he was, able to give this man an anaesthetic of sorts so he wasn't able to feel what happened. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  What sort of tools, what sort of tools did you have?  You perform the amputation? 

LYDIA:  We had two tourniquets which were very helpful. We had a Leatherman knife um and I think we probably had a little old fashioned hacksaw.  Ah and so that was what… 

JENNY BROCKIE:  So no, no surgical implements? 

LYDIA:   No, no.  

JENNY BROCKIE:  How did the man react to being told that that was what was going to happen? 

LYDIA:  I think he knew.  I don’t remember articulating clear, exactly to him what we were going to do, but he knew.  He was very calm.  He is a, an incredibly well possessed calm man. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Mm.  Um what were the conditions like while you were performing that operation? 

LYDIA:  It was dark because there was no power, it was cramped because the stairwell had collapsed. There was rubble because things had fallen down, and it was cramped enough that there was only room for one person to hold the man in preparation to remove him and one person lying on our tummies to do what had to be done, so it was cramped and dark. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And there were aftershocks. 

LYDIA:  Apparently and I can’t remember the aftershocks, but there were aftershocks throughout the afternoon.  

JENNY BROCKIE:  So a lot of danger really for all of you, did any of that weigh up in your mind the danger that you were in as well? 

LYDIA:  Not at the time ah there was a clear intent to do this job and remove this man, so I think that was, that was the, that was the focus. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And what happened in the end?  What happened to the man? 

LYDIA:  In the end he was removed, he was put into a waiting ambulance. He was taken to hospital and through a number of things he, he’s end, ended up with a very good result. He’s alive, he’s well, he works, he’s done either the Boston or New York Marathon on a hand cycle, um he drives, he is, he’s very well.  

JENNY BROCKIE:  And are there things that you um, surprised you about your own reaction in that situation?  Were there, where there things you didn’t expect? 

LYDIA:  I was glad and relieved that when the time came to do something needed to be done that I was able to contribute to it.  

JENNY BROCKIE:  You were way outside your normal context, to perform an operation. Did that make any difference at all? 

LYDIA:  Um no.  At the time there didn’t, there, the other urologists and surgeons there were as experienced as I was, so I felt that there was nobody else more qualified than I to do that. So despite being out of my comfort zone, I was among the most qualified people to play that role.  

JENNY BROCKIE:  Agie, you mentioned before that you were outside your work context as an ICU nurse, did it make a major difference to your reactions?  I mean when you look back on it now?  

AGIE:  Um that’s a good question. I think you always think of what you could have done better, of what you um could have done differently, but the thing that scars me the most is Brett’s face, grey face and his leg wound and you know we just knew then and there that for me, my responsibility was I need help. I can’t do this on my own. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Mark if you’d seen one of your friends on one of those rooves, would it have been a different experience for you? 

MARK:  That’s, that’s a very difficult question to answer Jenny.  Each job leaves its mark on you. Now I didn’t see any friends down there but I saw people that could have been my mother, my father, my brother, my sister and that will always have an effect on you. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Peter you’ve been in a situation where you had to respond to a situation involving a friend’s child who’d been run over… 

PETER:  Yes. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  … and died.   

PETER:  Mm. 

JENNY BROCKIE:   Was that different for you as a paramedic?   

PETER:  I did find it different. It was um it would have to be, to this day one of the most haunting jobs I’ve ever had and it had the most impact on me as a paramedic in my whole thirty years of my career. I was friends with the father of the child.  I went to school with him, I played football with him and I was friends with the truck driver who’d run over him and grew up and went to school with him. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  How old was the child? 

PETER:  Seven, yeah and I’d been on call that night on the aircraft and I got home about four o’clock and I got a call about six am Christmas morning and the incident just happened to be about five hundred metres from my home and all I got was that it was, was a pedestrian hit and struck so I climbed out into the car and drove up the road and there was a large garbage truck parked in the court and underneath the wheels of the garbage truck was this little boy who had, was outside riding his brand new bike that he’d just received from Santa.  And the garbage truck had come in to collect rubbish and couldn’t turn the, the arc of the court so reversed out and didn’t see the little boy and run over him and it was obvious from the scene that he was deceased and um I then had to go in and tell the father.  

JENNY BROCKIE:  And tell him.  Mm. 

PETER:  And um I just remember going in, I, and for some strange reason I thought being a friend of this person maybe it would be … 

JENNY BROCKIE:  It would help. 

PETER: … better coming from me you know because I wanted to tell him in such a way, I don’t know that, that I cared I suppose but I mean he’s lost a child.  How do you do that, you know?  

JENNY BROCKIE:  Mm mm mm. 

PETER:  And um and his response was totally not what I expected but certainly understandable and um it shocked me more you know just the way he reacted. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  How did he re-react? 

PETER:  Um disbelief, violent, um throwing things… 


PETER:  Angry you know and you know totally understandable, totally understandable and I had a child of similar age, you know, and I knew the truck driver as well at that stage very well who… 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Who was presumably devastated as well. 

PETER:  Oh he’s since suicided over that case. 


PETER:  And after that, I then went home to my children under the Christmas tree opening up their gifts and it was just, had lots, lots of issues evolve with it you know that added that extra pressure um and it’s just a job that, if I could erase my memory today, I would, I’d take it away. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  How do you pick yourself up after something like that and go back out there and do what you do? 

PETER:  Yeah no it was just, I don’t know.  It takes a particular character to be a paramedic and deal with these incidences.  If I could change it and erase it I would um but I’m human, um it did impact on me as you can see, I feel like I’ve lost a friend in that, in the father because I can’t face him anymore because I don’t want to be that memory for him you know, so ah and I’ve turned up to places in like you know restaurants and that where he has been and I’ve left because I don’t want to upset his night out, you know?  I don’t want him to look over to me and be that memory for him so it’s impacted on me, you know in a big way but I mean being able to talk about it to your peers and you have a peer support system which allows you to have professional help if you need it, you know to talk about these sort of things, helps you get over it and get through those sorts of things.  

JENNY BROCKIE:  Yeah.  Peter after 22 years you gave up working as a flight paramedic.  Let’s have a look at what you’re doing now. 




PETER:  There's been plenty of jobs I’ve walked into with a calm exterior, where my heart has been racing like you wouldn't believe. Being able to walk into a scene and let people see that, it’s OK, you are here, you can rely on us, we are here to help. 

Sounds like he's violent, a bit aggressive. The crew can't manage him, so we have to manage that before we can manage anything else. 

Just relax mate. Just relax. Is that all he's taken, do you know? Just want to get him on his side, once we get him in? 

Open your eyes mate, open your eyes? Just keep an eye on his chest, make sure his mental status and he's getting adequate volume. If you don't think he's getting adequate volume, just assist. He's taken 500 milligrams of Denep, which he just received today, mixed with quite a large amount of alcohol. First ambulance crew arrived GCS 7, very aggressive, agitated, had to be sedated to be monitored and handled. He's had Adazalam, 5 milligrams IM and 10 milligrams IV in total. 

That’s pretty much him, as far as we know, that's all he's taken, just the Endep with the alcohol, extremely agitated at the house. 


JENNY BROCKIE:  Why do you do what you do? 

PETER:  It’s that feeling I think, of satisfaction and reward that you get helping people, you know which in in a lot of times is that worst out of their life that um… 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Is it addictive? 

PETER:  I think it is addictive. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  That kind of… 

PETER:  Yeah I believe it is addictive to a point where you get a great feeling from that, so you want to go out and do it all again so that makes… 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Same with you Mark? 

MARK:  Absolutely, you come home from work some days and you’re absolutely buzzing because you’ve just pulled three people out of the water off in the ocean, or you’ve winched someone that was trapped on a cliff face.  

JENNY BROCKIE:  And what about afterwards, what about after those Queensland floods? 

MARK:  Well, the thing that was probably the saving grace in lots of ways, because of so many people dying out there and the responsibility we felt on that particular day was that meeting the people that were saved, the time we spent with the survivors like Ken and Fran. So I have to focus on the fact that there’s people that we’ve saved, they can go on to live their life and do things and maybe, who knows what they can create or do on the planet.  And for the people that were lost, you feel the sorrow and the grief and the pain, but you have to let it go. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Peter how did you react after the Sydney to Hobart rescue? What was the wash-up for you of that? 

PETER:  Um it was a strange set of circumstances after that because the job was so successful um we thought well we ended up rescuing everybody.  No one off that vessel was lost and it wasn’t until I turned up to Adelaide to meet, all the guys that we’d rescued that you realise just how much of an impact it did have on you. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  You dreamt about it? 

PETER:  Yeah I had dreams… 

JENNY BROCKIE:  What did you dream? 

PETER:  … for the following six nights straight after the, straight after the rescue that we didn’t rescue anybody.  I was woken up having this dream that I didn’t rescue anyone and they were all lost and I’d sit up in bed and I’d find out where, you know find where I was and go, oh no it’s okay, we did rescue them all.  

JENNY BROCKIE:  Alistair and Brett, have there been after effects for you from that incident?   

ALASTAIR:  Um I think an incident like that does change you as a person um and for me I think I relish um my time now as I’ve got it.  

JENNY BROCKIE:  What about you Brett? 

BRETT:  Ah yeah, in the weeks after the event it was pretty ah very stressful and very exhausting because the incident wasn’t just an incident involving a few people in a room, it was the whole university that felt that incident and so it was very exhausting and I didn’t really have any energy to look after myself in that period.  But eventually got some space to do that and I felt like I came through it but one thing that’s reality for me is that it’s nearly fourteen years since the incident happened, but every day I think about it.  Something reminds me of it. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Joel how’s Brett doing your friend? 

JOEL:  He’s responded really well. It’s only been two months since the incident occurred and he’s up and walking as you can see he’s doing physio at the moment um he played seven, seven holes of golf the other day so to have a whole muscle transplanted into his leg and two months after that incident occurred for him to be walking… 

JENNY BROCKIE:  That’s extraordinary. 

JOEL:  … I think it’s incredible.  Um but I think having, having that support around us um for, I think for Agie, myself and Brett and everyone else that was involved has brought everyone closer together and I think I’d still be suffering a bit from the incident but because everyone’s come in so close it’s been a really positive response. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Mmm. Lydia, were there things you took away from your experience as a first responder or near first responder? 

LYDIA:  The immediate aftermath of it, I wanted to avoid publicity and it was partly out of respect for this man and his family, because I wasn't aware for the first little while of what had happened to him, I didn't know whether he'd lived or died and if he had lived how he had gone and also out of respect and protecting my family and friends but that quiet time was important for me to process this and it took me and still takes me time. It took me weeks and months, maybe even years, to process where it sits in my - with me. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  And what about for you, yourself? Has that experience had an impact on rest of your life?  

LYDIA:  Absolutely. So, it's given me a strong sense of making the most out of what you've got because I never really know what's around the corner and it can be taken away from you and your life can be changed in an instant. And so I have got this strong sense of maximizing and capitalising on what I have, and making the most out of my life and the life of others around me. 

JENNY BROCKIE:  Thank you so much everybody for joining us tonight and for sharing your stories. It’s been great to ah, to hear from you all. Thank you very much and that is all we have time for here, but let’s keep talking on Twitter and on Facebook.   Thanks everyone.