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