Countless questions for bus hero who saved 11 souls but couldn’t save his ‘brother’
Raw and weary from a long Friday night shift, Brisbane taxi driver Aguek Nyok wept as he told the story he was too traumatised to tell a year ago when a Moorooka bus fire claimed the life of beloved Indian bus driver Manmeet Alisher.
It was the story beneath the story, the one about how well Aguek — the South Sudanese refugee hero who saved the lives of at least 11 people last October — knew Manmeet, the one man our hero could not save. A tale of two cabbies who’d talk for hours in the taxi holding grid of Brisbane Airport about family and fortune; about how lucky they were that God saw fit to place them among the good people of Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.
“Paradise,” Manmeet would call it. Heaven on earth.
It was 9.03am on October 28, 2016, when a bus passenger named Anthony O’Donohue allegedly boarded bus S-1980 at the Moorvale bus stop on Beaudesert Road, Moorooka, and threw an “incendiary device” at a defenceless bus driver, social worker, actor and singer named Manmeet, burning him alive and trapping 11 passengers inside the fireball bus.
“Hate crime!” roared furious Indians across Australia and the world. The story made headlines in newspapers including The Hindustan Times and The Washington Post. “His family blames racism,” read a Washington Post headline.
As thousands of Indian families across Brisbane and Australia gathered for candlelit vigils, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi phoned Malcolm Turnbull to express concern for the welfare of Indians in Australia.
The story of the alleged crime was always followed by the story of Aguek, the random cabbie in the right place at the right time who ran to the bus as others ran from it, giving three karate kicks he’d honed in after-work karate lessons against the jammed rear bus doors, where a trapped mother and her baby was screaming. But those stories didn’t mention the beautiful and deep connection between brave saviour and tragic victim, between two cabbie mates who came to call each other “brother”.
“I came to the back door and the only face I saw really clearly was the mother with the baby,” Aguek recalls.
“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 the door open because it wanted to shut back closed. The mum and the baby got out first, then everybody else.”
As the passengers escaped, Aguek looked inside the escalating inferno, up to the driver’s end where a wall of flame was engulfing the bus.
“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 … something. I didn’t know it was Manmeet. I got everybody out. But I didn’t save my brother.”
That something he saw burning still haunts him. He still thinks about it in the quiet lulls of a cab shift. He tries to shake that memory off. “I don’t want it to get inside me,” he says. But he knows that sometimes he’s powerless to stop it. It’s like something Manmeet’s brother, Amit Alisher, told The Weekend Australian. “We are inside the same pain, always,” he said.
One year on, Manmeet’s family, not to mention Australia’s wider Indian community, endure an agonising wait for answers to the simplest questions about what exactly happened that day in the most harmonious and multicultural community in Brisbane, as criminal charges against Anthony O’Donohue proceed through Queensland’s complex legal system.
“The whole world is looking,” said Manmeet’s best friend, Winnerjit Goldy, who calls the attack a “black spot” on Australia.
“Why this Indian guy? Why the bus driver? Why Manmeet?”