Sur­rounded by a wall of flames, a young New Zealand girl put her last hope in the pledge of a coura­geous fire­fighter

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Contents - JAMES HUTCHISON

A young girl is pinned un­der­neath a burn­ing petrol tanker.

Let’s go, Mum!” Shirley Young beg ged her mother. It was Thurs­day, Au­gust 9, 1990 – late-night shop­ping at Manukau City Shop­ping Cen­tre in South Auck­land. One of the high­lights of the week for the 12-yearold Maori girl was to spend a few hours at New Zealand’s big­gest mall with her aunt and cousin. Her mother Gay­lene, a sin­gle par­ent strug­gling to im­prove her job prospects, ap­pre­ci­ated hav­ing a few hours by her­self to catch up on her stud­ies.

Gay­lene threw on a woollen cardigan against the evening chill and drove the trio to the mall in her sis­ter’s white Cortina, stop­ping at the kerb on busy Wiri Sta­tion Road to drop them off. As Shirley headed across the car park to join the throng of shop­pers she sud­denly re­alised she didn’t have her purse. “Wait Mum!” she yelled, run­ning back. “I for­got my money.” Shirley opened the pas­sen­ger door and leaned in.

Fur­ther back along the busy road, Buddy Marsh shifted gears on his huge Sca­nia tanker as he headed up the rise. The 40-tonne truck and trailer held more than 30,000 litres of petrol des­tined for a ser­vice sta­tion in cen­tral Auck­land. A cau­tious driver, Marsh kept well to the left of the two-lane road but, as he neared the mall, a taxi pulled out of the car park, block­ing his lane. Marsh swung his rig away. A glance in his mir­rors showed the trailer just cleared the front of the taxi. Then, as he looked ahead, Marsh gasped in hor­ror. Not 20 me­tres away, di­rectly in his path, was a sta­tion­ary white car.

Marsh yanked on the steer­ing wheel and hit the air brakes, lock­ing up sev­eral of the 14 sets of wheels. The truck slammed into the rear of the car, spin­ning it round like a child’s toy and rup­tur­ing its fuel tank. Petrol sprayed both ve­hi­cles, ig­nit­ing them in­stantly. Car­ried on by its mas­sive mo­men­tum, the trailer jack-knifed, reared over the kerb and top­pled on top of the wrecked car.

One sec­ond Gay­lene Young was talk­ing to her daugh­ter; the next, she was whirling around in a vor­tex of crum­pling me­tal. Gay­lene sat stunned as flames poured into the car and a sin­gle, ter­ri­ble thought rose in her mind. Shirley! Where is she? Gay­lene groped fran­ti­cally around in the dark­ness but the pas­sen­ger seat was empty. Thank God. She’s made it out of here. An ex­cru­ci­at­ing pain shot up her legs; her sneak­ers and track pants were on fire. Gay­lene strug­gled to open the buck­led doors, but they wouldn’t budge. “No!” she screamed, “I won’t die like this.”

“Brian!” Marsh called on his twoway ra­dio to his shift mate Brian Dixon in an­other truck. “I’ve had an ac­ci­dent! I’m on fire! Call emer­gency ser­vices!”

Marsh jumped down and ran around the front of the tanker to the

burn­ing car. Flames were lick­ing the trailer’s tanks. Worse, fuel was leak­ing from relief valves on the over­turned trailer and spew­ing from a hole in its front com­part­ment. The whole rig could blow.

Marsh reached the car just as by­stander David Petera hauled Gay­lene out and smoth­ered her flam­ing clothes with his own body. He and other by­standers then car­ried her a safe dis­tance away.

ABOVE THE HISS of es­cap­ing com­pressed air and the roar­ing fire, Marsh heard a voice call­ing “Mum! Mum!” At first he couldn’t see any­thing. Then, as he searched un­der­neath the top­pled trailer, he saw a young, dark- haired girl trapped in a tiny space be­tween a rear wheel and the chas­sis. “Mum!” she cried. “Mum!” Marsh grabbed her be­neath the arms. “You’ll be right. You’re com­ing with me,” he said. But he couldn’t budge her: her lower body was pinned to the ground by the wheel as­sem­bly. “I want my mum!” she wailed.

Petera crawled in along­side and to­gether they tried to find a way of free­ing the girl. Through a gap in the chas­sis, Marsh could see a stream of fuel spilling from the tanker into the gut­ter. “We’ve got to get her out, now!” he told Petera. “Try inch­ing the truck for­ward,” Petera sug­gested. As Marsh ran back to the cab, the in­te­rior was al­ready ablaze. Jump­ing up into the burn­ing seat, he reached for­ward through the flames to the melt­ing dash­board and twisted the ig­ni­tion key. To his amaze­ment, the en­gine roared to life. He shifted it into low gear and coaxed the rig gen­tly for­ward. Shirley shrieked in pain. “It’s no good,” called Petera. “She’s still trapped.”

A wall of fire ran the length of the tanker, threat­en­ing to sweep around un­der the trailer where Shirley lay. Marsh grabbed a small fire ex­tin­guisher from the cab and ran back, spray­ing it around the girl, hop­ing to buy a few pre­cious sec­onds.

Then, from above the men, came a thun­der­ous roar. An ex­plo­sion tore a hole in one of the trailer’s four fuel com­part­ments. An im­mense fire­ball bal­looned into the sky. Shop­pers in the car park ran for their lives. Marsh and Petera, shielded by the tanker from the full force of the blast, crawled out. “There’s a lit­tle girl trapped un­der the trailer,” shouted Marsh.

“Let the fire­fight­ers han­dle it,” a po­lice­man replied. “Clear the area now!” Truck, trailer and car were now lost in a caul­dron of fire. “That poor

Marsh could see a stream of fuel spilling from the tanker. “We’ve got to get her out, now!”

lit­tle girl,” Marsh said, hold­ing his head in his hands. “She didn’t have a chance.”

With a blaze of sirens, a pump and res­cue trucks from Manukau Sta­tion ar­rived. Im­me­di­ately the ve­hi­cles stopped, se­nior fire­fighter Royd Kennedy had an arm­ful of hose out of the locker and his part­ner, Mike Keys, was lug­ging foam con­tain­ers down be­hind him. Driver Tod Pen­berthy was sprint­ing to con­nect the pump to the near­est hy­drant. Wait­ing for the wa­ter, Kennedy saw his boots, f ire­proof overtrousers and the rub­ber on his breath­ing ap­pa­ra­tus be­gin to singe. When they turned the hose on the fire, the heat was so in­tense that the wa­ter steamed away be­fore it reached the flames.

Se­nior Sta­tion Of­fi­cer John Hy­land, in charge of the ini­tial re­sponse, had never seen such po­ten­tial for dis­as­ter in 19 years of fight­ing fires. The tanker was burn­ing end to end, shoot­ing flames 100 me­tres into the air. Petrol poured from holes and relief valves into a widen­ing lake and a river of fire raced down the road into stormwa­ter drains.

Only a few me­tres away were 550 other po­ten­tial fires – the cars in the crowded car park. Hy­land knew of tankers that had blown up within min­utes in a great fuel/air vapour con­fla­gra­tion – known to fire­fight­ers as BLEVE (Boil­ing Liq­uid Ex­pand­ing Vapour Ex­plo­sion), it reaches out for hun­dreds of me­tres and in­cin­er­ates any­thing in its path. Only 100 me­tres from the burn­ing tanker was the mall, packed with al­most 20,000 late-night shop­pers.

More fire crews ar­rived. “Con­cen­trate on push­ing the flames away from that tanker!” or­dered Di­vi­sional Of­fi­cer Ray Warby, who had ar­rived to take con­trol. As if to un­der­line his words, the fuel in an­other com­part­ment ex­ploded in a mon­strous fire­ball, forc­ing Kennedy and his crew mates back 20 me­tres. The ve­hi­cles in the car park around them had be­gun to melt, plas­tic bumpers and mir­rors sag­ging, paint bub­bling.

As the fire­fight­ers read­ied them­selves for an­other as­sault, a long, high-pitched wail cut through the night. Kennedy’s sta­tion of­fi­cer, Gra­ham Hay­cock, dis­missed it as the sound of ex­pand­ing me­tal. When the eerie sound came again it raised the hair on the back of Kennedy’s neck. I’ll be damned, he thought. It’s

com­ing from the tanker. Shield­ing his eyes, Kennedy peered into the glare, but saw only a flam­ing wall 50 me­tres high. Then, for a split sec­ond, the flames parted. From be­neath the trailer he saw some­thing wav­ing. It was the hand of a child.

“Cover me!” Kennedy shouted to Hay­cock. He dropped his hose and ran straight into the in­ferno.

FOR TEN MIN­UTES lit­tle Shirley Young had been slowly roast­ing in a sea of fire. It’s hope­less, she told her­self, no one can hear me in here. Giddy with pain and petrol fumes, she felt her mind be­gin to drift and sud­denly saw a vivid im­age of her grand­fa­ther and grand-un­cle – both of whom had died years be­fore. They are guardian an­gels now, she thought. They’ll be watch­ing over me. The idea gave her new strength. Strain­ing to see through the wall of fire, Shirley glimpsed mov­ing fig­ures, I’ve got to let them know I’m here! Mus­ter­ing every ounce of strength, she screamed louder than she had ever done in her life.

As Kennedy neared the flames, the heat hit them like a phys­i­cal blow, sting­ing his face through his vi­sor. Shield­ing his head with his gloved hands and fire­proof jacket, he crawled un­der the trailer. Shirley was try­ing to hold her­self up by clutch­ing a ca­ble over her head, but her hips and thighs were un­der the wheel as­sem­bly and her legs were twisted up, like a grasshop­per’s next to her chest.

“I’m scared. Please don’t leave me,” she wailed. Kennedy tucked his air cylin­der un­der her shoul­ders to sup­port her up­per body. “Don’t worry,” he told her. “I’ll stay, I prom­ise you.” Kennedy meant what he said; he had al­ways made it a rule never to break prom­ises to his own three kids, Ngaire, Rosamund and Ray­nal. “My name’s Royd,” he said. “We’re in this to­gether now, so we have to help each other.” He reached into the tiny space and cra­dled the small body in his arms. Hav­ing fended for him­self since his teens, he knew what it meant to be alone and afraid. “Is my mum al­right?” Shirley asked. Kennedy replied: “She’s a bit burned, but she got away. My mates will soon get us out, too.”

The air was so thick with fumes that the two of them could barely breathe. Kennedy knew it would be only sec­onds be­fore the vapour ig­nited.

Whooosh! The fire­fighter braced him­self as the air ex­ploded around them. This is it, he thought. Now we’re goners. Shirley whim­pered. Kennedy felt sick with help­less­ness as the flames washed over her. Then, for a mo­ment, the fire drew back. “This is pretty rough, eh Shirley?” he said, un­strap­ping his hel­met, “Put this on,” At least it may help save her face, he thought. He cinched the strap tight un­der her chin and flipped down the vi­sor. As he hun­kered down he thought: Where the hell is my cover?

Hay­cock was run­ning through the car park to the rest of their

team, yelling at the top of his voice. “Royd’s un­der the tanker. Get that hose up here!” Strug­gling with the wa­ter-filled hose, they took no more than a minute to get within strik­ing dis­tance, but it seemed an eter­nity.

A sec­ond wave of fire washed over Kennedy and Shirley. They fought back hard, beat­ing out the f lames. Then more ex­plo­sions rocked the trailer, and Kennedy’s heart sank. We don’t have a chance now, he thought. He looked down at the girl’s tor­tured body. I won’t leave you. That I prom­ise. Then he wrapped his arms tightly round her and waited for the fi­nal surge of flame that would surely im­mo­late them both.

In­stead of fire, they were hit by an ice-cold wa­ter­fall. “My mates are here!” yelled Kennedy. Warby ap­peared through the cur­tain of wa­ter. “Don’t worry, we’ll get things mov­ing,” he told Kennedy, then he took quick stock. The two were shielded from the full force of the main fire above and be­side them, but the burn­ing wreck­age of the car was in the way, ham­per­ing the fire­fight­ers’ ef­forts to pro­tect and res­cue the pair.

Warby crawled out and ran to Pe­ter Glass, an of­fi­cer in charge of a res­cue truck. “Get that girl out. I don’t care how you do it as long as you do it fast!”

As Pe­ter Brench­ley and three other fire­fight­ers sprayed the life-giv­ing wa­ter that kept fire away from Kennedy and Shirley, they were ex­posed to the full ra­di­ated heat of the main tanker blaze. It gnawed through their multi-lay­ered bunker coats as if they were tis­sue pa­per. Brench­ley could feel the skin on his shoul­ders and arms blis­ter­ing, and his gloves were seared through. But they didn’t dare back off. If the spray wa­vered, fire would in­stantly sweep back over. Even chang­ing crews was too risky.

Iron­i­cally, now Shirley and Kennedy be­gan to shiver vi­o­lently: 80 litres of freez­ing wa­ter were cas­cad­ing over them each sec­ond. Soon they were in the first stages of hy­pother­mia.

“I’ll get some­one to re­lieve you,” Warby yelled to Kennedy. “No,” Kennedy re­torted. “I must stay with her. I made a prom­ise.”

Pe­ter Glass brought his res­cue ve­hi­cle in as close as he dared while a crew­man sprinted to the car and hooked a winch ca­ble to the wind­screen pil­lar. The winch was not pow­er­ful enough to drag the car out so they rigged it to the res­cue truck’s crane and, us­ing it like a gi­ant fish­ing rod, hauled the burn­ing wreck away.

As­sis­tant Com­man­der Cliff Mears from the fire brigade head­quar­ters, had set up a mo­bile com­mand post and called in a fourth, then fifth alarm. Any ve­hi­cle in the city that could be use­ful was on its way to the scene. How­ever, the fire­fight­ers were fac­ing yet an­other po­ten­tial catas­tro­phe. Fed by tonnes of fuel, a tor­rent of fire was pour­ing into stormwa­ter drains in the car park and on Wiri Sta­tion Road. But

what route did the drains take?

The an­swer came with a deaf­en­ing ex­plo­sion. A man­hole cover blasted out of the ground at the main en­trance of the mall, nar­rowly miss­ing a woman and fling­ing her shop­ping trol­ley into the air. Rum­bling un­der­ground ex­plo­sions be­gan lift­ing and blow­ing out man­hole cov­ers all over the com­plex. One­and-a-half kilo­me­tres away, stormwa­ter drains emp­ty­ing into the Puhinui Stream sparked five sep­a­rate fires in the scrub on the stream’s banks.

The en­tire shop­ping cen­tre was now per­me­ated with petrol fumes. “Evac­u­ate the cen­tre. Quick as you can,” Mears or­dered.

BACK AT THE BURN­ING RIG, Warby ap­proached Grant Pen­ny­cook, a para­medic from a wait­ing am­bu­lance crew. “There must be some­thing we can do to ease the girl’s pain – do you think you could make it un­der there?” he asked.

Bit­ing back his fear, Pen­ny­cook donned a bunker coat and hel­met and headed into the in­ferno. As he crawled into the tiny space where Shirley and Kennedy lay, he re­alised he wouldn’t have room to get an IV drip go­ing. He con­sid­ered ad­min­is­ter­ing a pain killer, but de­cided against it: Shirley seemed to be cop­ing and side ef­fects such as sup­pres­sion of her breath­ing might ham­per the res­cue op­er­a­tion. Trauma vic­tims need to get to hos­pi­tal within an hour of in­jury – dubbed the ‘golden hour’ by emer­gency ser­vices – to have a de­cent chance of sur­vival. Crawl­ing out, Pen­ny­cook was con­scious that tim­ing was vi­tal. Shirley had been un­der the tanker for more than 30 min­utes. With her mas­sive in­juries, burns and now the cold, she could eas­ily slip into shock and die.

Kennedy had been try­ing to take her mind off her predica­ment. “What do you watch on TV?” he asked, and they talked for a while about her favourite shows. “If you could go any­where in the world, where would you go?”

“Dis­ney­land,” she said em­phat­i­cally, “I love Mickey Mouse.” This man’s so brave, she thought. He could get out of here any time he wants. Grandad and Un­cle Vin­cent must have sent him.

When­ever she was star­tled by a sud­den noise, Kennedy would ex­plain what the fire­fight­ers were do­ing. “How bad am I hurt, Royd?” she asked. Kennedy tried to re­as­sure her: “You’ve got a few bro­ken bones and burns, but it’s

Iron­i­cally, they be­gan to shiver vi­o­lently and were in the first stages of hy­pother­mia

mar­vel­lous what the doc­tors can do.” Oc­ca­sion­ally she would let out sti­fled moans. “It’s OK, yell all you want,” he en­cour­aged. “Bite me if it helps.”

The pain from the in­juries to Shirley’s lower body was be­com­ing un­bear­able. She cried out, bury­ing her hands in Kennedy’s thick hair, pulling hard to ease her agony. As a fire­fighter, Kennedy had seen grown men with very lit­tle wrong with them blub­ber­ing like id­iots, yet here was a 12-year-old girl who had not shed a sin­gle tear.

The steady flow of wa­ter wa­vered for an in­stant. God no, thought Kennedy, the fire can’t take us now. Shirley barely man­aged to move her arms as the f lames rolled in. Then the wa­ter came pour­ing back and Kennedy was hor­ri­fied to see sev­eral lay­ers of skin on her arms had slid down and bunched up round her wrists. “I’m still with you Shirley,” he said. “Do you like horses?” he asked, des­per­ate to get her talk­ing again. “I’ve never been on a horse.” “When we’re out of here, I prom­ise you a ride on my daugh­ter’s horse, Gilly.”

As Kennedy talked, he kept a finger on Shirley’s wrist to check her pulse. Now it was grow­ing no­tice­ably fainter and more er­ratic. She’d been trapped for nearly 40 min­utes. Dear God, how much more can she take?

With the wreck out of the way, Pe­ter Glass was try­ing to lift the trailer off the girl. He faced a knife-edge de­ci­sion. A hy­draulic jack would be quicker, but it risked tilt­ing the trailer, tip­ping out more fuel and in­cin­er­at­ing the pair. “We’ll use the airbags. They’ll give a straight lift,” Glass told his crew. Only 25 mil­lime­tres thick and made of rub­ber re­in­forced with steel, the 600-mil­lime­tre-square bags could each lift a rail­way wagon 60 cen­time­tres. They slid one un­der each set of rear wheels and be­gan feed­ing in com­pressed air. As the trailer moved they slipped in wooden blocks to keep it on an even keel.

Kennedy felt Shirley’s pulse flut­ter and she closed her eyes, “Shirley, talk to me!” he pleaded. She ral­lied for a cou­ple of mo­ments but her pulse was so faint now he could barely feel it. She lifted her head and looked into his eyes. “If I don’t make it, tell Mum I love her,” she whis­pered.

“We’re los­ing her, Warby,” Kennedy shouted. “Throw me an Air Viva!” Kennedy put the mask of the por­ta­ble re­sus­ci­ta­tor over Shirley’s face and forced air into her lungs. She stirred a lit­tle and opened her eyes. “You tell your mum your­self,” he scolded. “I promised I wouldn’t leave you. Now don’t you leave me!”

“I’ll hang on,” she mur­mured.

FROM HIS MO­BILE CON­TROL cen­tre, Com­man­der Mears had dis­patched teams to chase down man­hole fires. Fire­fight­ers gin­gerly lifted cov­ers, care­ful not to cause a spark, and be­gan pump­ing wa­ter down the drains to flush the fuel down to the har­bour.

Oth­ers car­ried fuel vapour-de­tec­tors around the mall, open­ing all doors and vents in an at­tempt to blow fumes out of the shop­ping cen­tre.

The burn­ing rig was in the fi­nal ­ap­proach path of Auck­land In­ter­na­tional Air­port and, with fire­balls send­ing smoke and huge ther­mal cur­rents into the sky, air-traf­fic con­trol is­sued warn­ings to air­craft of the dan­ger. There were now 27 ap­pli­ances and 109 fire­fight­ers on the scene.

Pe­ter Glass’s res­cue team had run into trou­ble. Part of the trailer was on soft ground, which was sod­den from all the wa­ter, and the airbag un­der the wheel that was trap­ping Shirley was sink­ing into the mud in­stead of lift­ing. They blocked one more time and in­flated the bag to its max­i­mum, but the wheels had risen only ten cen­time­tres. “We must have her out now,” Warby told Glass.

Pray­ing it would give them that ­ex­tra few cen­time­tres of lift with­out tip­ping the trailer, Glass shoved a small hy­draulic ram un­der the chas­sis. He held his breath. The trailer lifted some more. Now he had a 15-cen­time­tre gap be­tween ground and wheels; it would have to be enough.

“Go for it!” he yelled. Kennedy gen­tly, but quickly, un­tan­gled Shirley’s legs from un­der the wheel; they were crushed so badly they were like jelly in his hands. Warby helped him jug­gle her crum­pled body from its tiny prison. Then they car­ried her to the stretcher. Just be­fore Shirley was lifted into the wait­ing am­bu­lance, she smiled at him and he bent down to kiss her on the cheek.

“You’ve done it, Shirley,” he said. Then, over­come by fumes, shock and cold, he pitched for­ward into the arms of Di­vi­sional Of­fi­cer Bruce Jones.

For Shirley, the or­deal con­tin­ued. As the am­bu­lance headed for hos­pi­tal, Pen­ny­cook bathed her burns in saline so­lu­tion and gave her ni­trous ox­ide to re­lieve her pain. If any­one de­serves to live, he thought, it is this girl who has fought so hard.

Back at the mall, fire­fight­ers were able to pour foam into the tanker. Be­fore, it would have en­dan­gered Kennedy and the girl; now they quenched the burn­ing rig in just three min­utes.

When Hy­land re­vis­ited the scene the next morn­ing, he saw some­thing that will haunt him for the rest of his life. For 70 me­tres the top layer of tar on the road had burnt away, in places down to bare gravel – ex­cept for a patch the size of a kitchen ta­ble that was lightly scorched by fire. This was where Shirley had been ly­ing.

“It was as if the devil was de­ter­mined to take that girl,” Hay­cock said later, “and when she was snatched away, he just gave up.”

AT MIDDLEMORE HOS­PI­TAL a team of sur­geons worked through the night on Shirley. Orthopaedic spe­cial­ists set her frac­tures and im­planted a pin in her crushed right leg. Burns

spe­cial­ists saved what they could of the charred flesh on her legs. In an­other wing of the hos­pi­tal, her mother lay with burns over 20 per cent of her body.

Four hours af­ter the crash, the fire­fight­ers fi­nally had the sit­u­a­tion un­der con­trol. It would be the next day ­be­fore fuel vapour lev­els in the shop­ping cen­tre and stormwa­ter drains were down to a safe level.

Royd Kennedy fin­ished his shi f t. He called his wife, Rose­mary, and told her to put on ba­con and eggs, and mounted his Harley David­son to ride home in the first pink l ight of dawn. Throw­ing cau­tion to the winds, he opened the throt­tle wide. If a cop pulls me over, he smiled to him­self, I’ve got a good story to tell.

The sur­geons did all they could. But the shock to Shirley’s young body had been mas­sive and trauma care had come very late, they told her fam­ily. “You must be ready for the worst.”

For two weeks Shirley lay in in­ten­sive care. With tubes in her throat, she couldn’t talk for the first few days. But, drift­ing in and out of se­dated sleep, she scrawled a note: “I love you, Mummy.” Five days af­ter the ac­ci­dent they wheeled Gay­lene into Shirley’s ward. Mother and daugh­ter held hands and wept with hap­pi­ness.

SHIRLEY SLOWLY RE­COV­ERED and be­gan a se­ries of painful skin grafts to her legs. Orthopaedic sur­geons found the right calf mus­cle too badly dam­aged to re­pai r and de­cided to am­pu­tate her leg be­low the knee.

Fire­fight­ers have an un­writ­ten rule never to visit vic­tims in hos­pi­tal in case they get too in­volved and lose judge­ment on the job. But Kennedy vis­ited Shirley of­ten, eat­ing her choco­lates and writ­ing on her chart, “This kid is far too noisy.”

They had forged a spe­cial friend­ship in the heat of the ter­ri­fy­ing fire. “She’s a mir­a­cle child,” says Kennedy. “I had guardian an­gels watch­ing over me,” ex­plains Shirley. On Jan­uary 19, Kennedy kept an­other prom­ise and took Shirley for a ride on Gilly.

Kennedy’s hero­ism gen­er­ated a f lood of let­ters from well-wish­ers. His favourite is a card that was made by three eight-year-old girls. It says sim­ply: “You are the great­est fire­man ever.”

Truck, trailer, car and 12-year-old Shirley Young caught in the fire caul­dron

Af­ter she had suf­fi­ciently re­cov­ered, Shirley got her promised ride on Gilly

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