Australia

'Thank you for your service': tributes for firefighters killed in truck rollover

Geoffrey Keaton, 32, and Andrew O'Dwyer, 36, died fighting fires. Source: NSW RFS

The deaths of NSW firefighters Geoffrey Keaton and Andrew O'Dwyer has rocked their families, community and firefighting fraternity.

The two volunteer firefighters who died in an accident southwest of Sydney have been hailed as heroes as their families prepare to celebrate Christmas without them.

Geoffrey Keaton, 32, and Andrew O'Dwyer, 36, died when a tree fell into the path of their tanker, causing it to roll, as they were travelling in a convoy near the town of Buxton late on Thursday night.

The pair were in the front seat and the three other members of the crew travelling with them were taken to Liverpool Hospital and treated for non-life-threatening injuries.

Both were remembered on Friday as committed family men and community members as their death prompted an outpouring of grief.

At the Horsley Park Rural Fire Brigade headquarters, in western Sydney, where both volunteered, family and friends gathered to commemorate and celebrate their lives.

Throughout the day members of the NSW Fire Brigade, community members and dignitaries, including NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, trickled in to pay their respects.

A makeshift memorial outside captured the mood of the small and tight-knit community as wellwishers stopped to lay flowers and tributes.

"Not all heroes wear capes, sending our prayers, thoughts and strength," read one card.

"To our hero, thank you for your service. RIP," said another.

Helmets emblazoned with "Keaton" and "O'Dwyer" were laid out alongside the bouquets of flowers as members of the 70-strong Horsley Park RFS brigade consoled each other.

One of Mr O'Dwyer's colleagues at a local grocery store described him as: "Caring, out there, happy, just a good man."

One of Mr Keaton's friends described the feeling of reading headlines of two rural firefighters dying before seeing a familiar face in the pictures.

"Geoff smiled readily and easily," he said.

Dalia Matti and her son lay flowers outside the Horsley Park Rural Fire Brigade.
Dalia Matti and her son lay flowers outside the Horsley Park Rural Fire Brigade.
Lucy Murray

Dalia Matti and her two sons were among the many who came to the Horsley Park station to lay a floral tribute to the firefighters. 

She worked with Andrew O’Dwyer at Woolworths and they often talked about their children. 

“[When I heard the news] it didn't make sense, it was just shock, just really bad shock,” she told SBS News.   

“He loved [his daughter] Charlotte and he would also talk so highly of his nephews, they played a big part in his life. 

“He was just happy, didn't let anything get to him. Thought more about other people than himself and did so much for others.

“I saw him last week at the carols… I told the kids what he was doing and how brave he was, the kids were jumping on the fire truck, they were also so happy, it was nice to see him.”

Woolworths Supermarkets' NSW/ACT general manager Michael Mackenzie said Andrew O’Dwyer was a "much-loved members of the Woolworths team".

"This is a tragic event and our hearts go out to Andrew’s family and loved ones at this incredibly difficult time," he said.

"Andrew was a much-loved member of the Woolworths team, whose generosity of spirit and commitment to volunteering touched the lives of many in the community. He will be sorely missed."

Tributes were also flowing on the NSW RFS Facebook page on Friday for the two firefighters, while the Horsley Park Rural Fire Brigade page posted a poem ending with "forever in hearts, always in our memories".

"This is heartbreaking," said one post. "The death of 'brothers' on active duty has, and always will, rock me to the core," said another.

"His absence will be felt keenly by his friends, family, partner and son. His son will grow up knowing his father died a hero."

Mr Keaton joined the NSW RFS in 2006, was the deputy captain of the Horsley Park brigade and is survived by his partner Jess and son Harvey,

Mr O'Dwyer joined in 2003 and is survived by his partner Mel and daughter Charlotte.

Both of their children are 19 months old and were born two days apart.

As various privately run fundraisers were established on Friday, the RFS set up a dedicated bank account to raise funds for the two men's families.

Tributes have flown for the pair from dignitaries, with NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian saying that, in death, they become symbolic of all volunteer firefighters. 

"These two brave young men who lost their lives, represent, for us, the thousands and thousands of volunteers on the ground today, and tomorrow, and in the days coming, who put their own life, their own safety, on the line to protect others," she told reporters.

Federal Labor leader Anthony Albanese said they represented the best of Australia.

"This is a tragedy. It's a tragedy that's deeply felt by all of the firefighters here that I've spoken with this morning, and, no doubt, all of their families as well," he said.

The floral tributes outside the RFS depot.
The floral tributes outside the RFS depot.

"It's a real risk. And we see the best of the spirit of Australia. We see people giving up their time, showing their courage, their resilience, putting their lives, literally, on the line."

He says they should be compensated through tax breaks, one-off payments, or special leave entitlements.

"They are at a loss," NSW RFS commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said of their families.

"Christmas is five days away. They're in extraordinary shock and natural despair at the enormity of what's confronting them and to try and comprehend the tragedy."

Geoff's father John was working on the mega-blaze at Gospers Mountain northwest of Sydney while his son was at the Green Wattle Creek fire.

"They're ordinary, everyday individuals - like you and I - that go out and simply want to serve and protect and make a difference in their local community," Mr Fitzsimmons said.

"And they don't ever go out in the knowledge that they might not come home from that shift."

The firefighters died not far from this blaze in Buxton, south-west of Sydney.
The firefighters died not far from this blaze in Buxton, south-west of Sydney.
AAP

The Keaton family, Mr Fitzsimmons noted, have a long family tradition of volunteering.

"Both of these men were very well respected, they were very close, they're a close-knit brigade, they're a very community-focused brigade, they work together, socialise together, they're very interactive together," he said.

A separate blaze burning near Bilpin, 90km north west of Sydney.
A separate blaze burning near Bilpin, 90km north west of Sydney.
AAP

"Their respective partners and wives shared a lot in common with their camaraderie and connection with the brigade."

In Victoria, the state's firefighting community joined their NSW counterparts in mourning the deaths.

"Our CFA crews have been honoured to fight alongside the RFS these past few months and our deepest sympathies go out to the family, friends and colleagues of these two members," the Country Fire Authority's Steve Warrington said in a statement.

More than 100 Victorian firefighters are helping with the NSW effort.

As various privately run fundraisers were established on Friday, the RFS set up a dedicated bank account to raise funds for the two men's families.

All money deposited to the official RFS fundraiser will be distributed equally between the men's widows, who both endorse the fundraiser.

Details for the Westpac account are on the RFS website.

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