He saved 11 people from a firebombed bus in suburban Brisbane. But he couldn’t save his mate
He’s not entirely sure who saved the 11 people trapped inside the burning bus. He knows it was his hulking right leg that kicked open the back door – three kicks, the miracle sum of every prayer he ever sent to God and every postwork karate lesson he ever took. The trauma of it brings tears to Aguek Nyok’s South-Sudanese eyes. He walks through the communal herb garden of the sprawling unit complex in Coopers Plains, south Brisbane, where he lives with his wife and four young kids. He can smell basil and mint and chives. He can smell fire.
October 28, 2016. A Friday, 9.03am. Brisbane City Council fleet bus S-1980 pulls into the Moorvale bus stop on Beaudesert Rd, Moorooka, a suburb just north of Coopers Plains. Three people board the bus, including 48-year-old Anthony O’Donohue, who allegedly throws an “incendiary device” at the defenceless bus driver.
The smell of the burning bus. The desperate face of the mum with her baby pressed against the glass panels of the rear doors.
“Pleeeeeeease…. open the door! Pleeeeeaase.” Dark smoke filling the bus. Passengers squeezed up behind the mum and her baby, bodies forced together by heat, bodies about to be burned alive.
Taxi driver Aguek, 31, knows it was his own right foot that made those mechanically fixed doors give way, his long, powerful arms that somehow prised them open. But he’s been thinking lately it might have been a soft-spoken man named Graeme Burow who saved those 11 lives.
“I was working up at Rockhampton as a meatworker,” Aguek says. “Then the abattoir went under water in the 2011 floods. We came here and I was chasing a job and I couldn’t find any.” He wanted to drive cabs but he couldn’t afford the driver training course. Graeme Burow, training manager for Yellow Cabs in Brisbane, took a shine to wide-smiling Aguek and put him through the course for free. If it wasn’t for Burow, he wouldn’t have been on that 12-hour shift on October 28, 2016. He took a job that morning from the city to Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee Hospital in Coopers Plains.
“From there, I thought I’d go to my hairdresser in Moorooka,” Aguek says, pointing to his glorious and well-kept ’fro glistening in the morning sun. “It was 9am and my hairdresser hadn’t arrived yet. So I was walking back to my taxi, which was parked at the taxi rank behind that bus stop. That’s when I see the fire happening right in front of me.”
Aguek digs deeper down the rabbit hole of fate and realises there’s probably 100 people across Brisbane whose generosity put him in that cab. Immigration officials, refugee support workers, housing support staffers, the Sudanese community of Moorooka. Soon he settles on the thought that the whole open-armed multicultural city of Brisbane got those people out of that burning bus.
Aguek had a friend named Manmeet Alisher who drove cabs for Black & White a few years back. A Punjabi man. Kind and funny and endlessly energetic. He was a part-time singer, an actor, a social worker, one of the most popular and well-liked figures across Brisbane’s close-knit Indian community. Aguek met Manmeet in the taxi holding bay of Brisbane Airport, the vast grid of cabs where drivers wait upwards of an hour to roll out in accordance to arriving flights.
A friend of Manmeet Alisher’s was a friend for life, so Manmeet Alisher had about a thousand lifelong friends. Aguek came to call him “brother”. They’d sometimes chat for hours in the holding bay and a recurring word in Manmeet’s conversation was “paradise”. Manmeet would explain to Aguek how he was raised in the village of his
name, Alisher, in northern India, with the belief that paradise can only be found by dying. But Manmeet was now convinced paradise could be found here in a humid brown river city home to floods and summer storms and 2.3 million people he considered the kindest, most loving on Earth. The safest place on the planet, Manmeet said. No war. No famine. Only opportunity and purple jacaranda trees that blossom in October. “Paradise,” Manmeet said. When Aguek approached the burning bus on October 28 he saw a man exiting its front doors. That man, he realised later, was the alleged attacker, Anthony O’Donohue, in a daze, burns across his body, flames still caught on his clothes.
“I thought he was the driver of the bus,” Aguek says. “I was running towards him, trying to help him. But then I passed the back door and I heard people shouting. I thought someone else could help the man who’s outside and I could help the ones inside. I came to the back door and the only face I saw really clearly was the mother with the baby. She was the one… like… she almost broke my heart. Very, very close to the door. I tried to push with my hands but it didn’t work. So I kicked and I kicked and on the third kick it did open, about five inches, enough for me to get my hand in there and keep a door open. I was holding it open because it wanted to shut back closed. The mum and the baby got out first, then everybody else.”
As the passengers scrambled past him out of the bus, Aguek looked inside the growing inferno, up to the driver’s end. “The whole bus is on fire and I can’t see what’s beyond the flame,” he says. “I can only see the flame. If there is someone there or if there is no one there, I can’t tell. But I do know there is… something. There is something burning behind that flame. That’s the only way I can describe it.”
He wipes a tear from his eye. “I didn’t know it was Manmeet.” He shakes his head. “I got everybody out,” he says. “But I didn’t save my brother.” Pinky Singh places six bowls of home-cooked Indian food on her kitchen bench. Masterful dhals and lamb curries and pickled vegetables. Pinky is president of the Punjabi Welfare Association of Australia. She lives in the vibrant Indian community of Stretton, also in Brisbane’s south. The neighbouring suburb is Sunnybank, where her dear friend Manmeet Alisher lived.
He was 29. He’d written a poem for his father weeks before his death. It was about his stage and screen dreams; about why he came to Australia to see his name up in lights and why, one day, he would be well-placed to care for his father like his father had once cared for him. “You took me round town on your bicycle; now I’ll drive you round town in my Audi / You put me in the shade and sat in the scorching heat yourself; now I’ll seat you in air-conditioned comfort…”
Pinky spoons white rice onto plates for her dinner guests, Winnerjit Goldy and Angela Owen, councillor for this region’s Calamvale Ward. Pinky met Angela when their sons, now teenagers, were at the local kindergarten together.
Winnerjit and Manmeet were best friends, raised together in the same Indian village. He’s flown to Brisbane from India today under instructions from Manmeet’s parents, Ram Sarup Sharma and Krishna Devi, to oversee a memorial that Angela and Brisbane City Council will unveil on the anniversary of Manmeet’s death. One year ago, Winnerjit was greeted by the grief-stricken faces of Angela and Pinky when he arrived in Brisbane with Manmeet’s brother, Amit, to collect Manmeet’s body and piece together the impossible story of how the kindest human they’d known was burned alive in the heart of what Winnerjit calls “Manmeet’s paradise”.
“He always said that,” Winnerjit nods. “He always said, ‘This is my paradise. This place is heaven for me’. Always. Always. He said, ‘This is a land of justice. This is a land of fairness’. Which is why we never expected this could happen in Australia… this cruel, inhumane thing.”
He points across the dining table at Angela. “This woman was the angel for us at that time,” he says. “From that day we met last year to today, she supported us in every way. Angela the angel.”
Angela Owen has long been a key conduit between the council and Brisbane’s burgeoning Indian community. “I had that sense that Manmeet was part of an extended family to me,” she says. “I’d seen him on stage singing at a festival only two weeks before he died. He had this magic about him, like a magnet to all these kids who were dancing around him.”
“He had very big dreams,” Winnerjit says. “He was just driving that bus to pay for the life he dreamed of in entertainment and in social work. He’s a man of dreams and he wanted to realise those dreams here. Even as a child, he would say to me, ‘Brother, you will see one day, I will be a big star in Australia’. He never stopped. Never sad. Never depressed. Just always chasing a dream.”
The memorial the trio are planning will speak of Manmeet’s contribution to his community, his generosity to Indian newcomers, his rare and giddy spirit. It will honour Aguek Nyok for his courage, as well as the police and fire services that responded to the scene.
“Those people expect to see things when they go to work in the morning,” Angela says. “But they weren’t expecting to deal with that kind of tragedy.” She’s talking about what was left of Manmeet. She recalls finding herself in the viewing room at the funeral directors’ office, standing beside community members who’d asked her to accompany them through culturally important viewings of the deceased. “There were a lot of people who came out of there who were devastated by the shock of what they’d seen,” she says, closing her eyes, shaking her head to change the memory reel in her mind. “That was a very, very difficult day.”
The memorial will tell the story of Manmeet’s life. But there’s a chapter of the story that this trio struggles with tonight, the chapter that keeps waking Manmeet’s parents in the middle of the
night. “We know that he’s not here anymore,” Winnerjit says. “But we don’t know why he’s not here. From that day one year ago all the way to today, we have been thinking only that: why?” Anthony O’Donohue, who’d once worked at Queensland Rail, lived in a unit in a social housing complex at 222 Beaudesert Road, near the bus stop. He had previously received treatment from the Metro South Hospital and Health Service. Police allege that on that October day, O’Donohue left his unit and walked 200m along the road with the “incendiary device” he allegedly threw into the bus. He was charged with Manmeet’s murder and 11 counts of attempted murder in relation to the passengers.
Thousands of Indian families gathered for candlelit vigils across Australia’s major cities as the harrowing story of Manmeet Alisher’s death spread across the world. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi phoned Malcolm Turnbull to express how troubled he was by the news. Two words turned in the growing story’s undertow: hate crime. India’s Hindustan Times reported “a sense of concern being felt in India over the recent brutal killing of Mr Manmeet Alisher”. The Washington Post didn’t mince words in its headline: “A beloved Indian bus driver was set on fire in Australia. His family blames racism.”
Amit Alisher was asked by Australian media if he suspected the crime was racially motivated. “We suspect that it may be,” he said. “We would like to see due process. We have faith in the Australian system.”
Indians across the world turned to Facebook. “It is a humble request and appeal to all the Punjabis living in and out of Australia to demand justice for Manmeet,” read the ‘RIP Manmeet Alisher’ page. “Make sure that the murderer must be hanged till death or burnt alive. Don’t let the Australian Govt leave him free by just declaring him mentally sick…”
In her living room, Pinky Singh recalls the composure that Winnerjit – a trained social worker in India – showed in fronting Australian and international media to cool a global racial debate that had rapidly reached boiling point. “He was the bridge between Australia and the Indian government,” she says. “He had to answer all the questions to calm it down, all the feeling in the temples and all the questions that were coming from the community. He always said to the community, ‘Justice will be there’.”
But one year on, Manmeet’s family still waits for justice, still longs for answers. “So many people around the world are still looking for these things,” Winnerjit says. “The whole world is looking. This is a black spot on Australia.”
Over dinner, he phones Manmeet’s brother Amit back in India. He translates a question from me into Amit’s native tongue: “How has the family moved on from October 28, 2016?” “We haven’t,” Amit says flatly. “We’re still there.” Days after Manmeet’s death, the Queensland Government ordered an independent inquiry into the health care previously given to O’Donohue. It said a forensic doctor, Professor Paul Mullen, would conduct an eight-week inquiry that would provide answers for Manmeet’s family.
In January, the Brisbane Magistrates Court heard the charges against O’Donohue would be transferred to a separate complex branch of the court system. The Queensland Government now says that as the O’Donohue matter remains before the courts, Mullen’s inquiry will not be made public for the foreseeable future. “The advice we have is that the release of the [inquiry] report, either wholly or in part, would potentially prejudice the trial,” says a senior government minister. “I can understand the family’s very strong desire to get as much information as they can to help them understand how this tragedy happened… It’s only natural that they want answers to a range of questions, and that they are frustrated when those answers aren’t forthcoming. If this report was able to be provided to the family, that would have happened already.”
State Opposition Leader Tim Nicholls says the case reflects wider issues of transparency in the government. “This sickening act rocked our community and the family deserves answers,” he says. “How can Queenslanders have confidence in the system when a veil of secrecy is used to hide its failings?”
“We just want to know why it happened to Manmeet and who was responsible for that?” Winnerjit says. “The Queensland Government? Or the police? Another person? If a person is mentally sick, how does he know this is the chemical used for a person to…” He trails off, shakes his head. Tears welling in his eyes.
“I mean… 90 seconds. It took Manmeet 90 seconds to die. Why? And we care for every human – every human is very important for us – but why not other ones along that road? There were a lot of other people on that walk. Why this Indian guy? Why the bus driver? Why Manmeet?” The unit complex at 222 Beaudesert Road is an unsettling place. Cramped, multi-storied shoebox apartments echoing with drunken wails and disputes. A man in his 30s stands in his doorway; he identifies himself by his middle name, Dawson. A long battle with PTSD stemming from a car accident saw him journey through Queensland’s mental health system, ending up here in “transitional housing” through Compass Housing Services.
“I’ve got a pisshead downstairs,” he says, pointing across the complex. In one unit, he says, is a drug dealer. There are two women “who bash each other full time” in another. “I want to get outta here. I’ve got this flimsy lock on my door and someone tried to break into to my unit. It scares me. I’ve gone to Compass about all these problems, how nobody gets along here. They think this situation is safe. It’s not safe. People are trying to change their lives but they’re dumped here. You try and get better and you can’t. The amount of times I’ve wanted to kill myself because of all this shit. It’s depressing.”
Haunted: Aguek Nyok
Community: Pinky Singh; below, Manmeet Alisher
Questions: Angela Owen; below, Winnerjit Goldy