Fallen fireys’ widows: ‘They will always be our heroes’
No one ever expected them not to come home.
Best mates Geoff Keaton, 32, and Andrew O'Dwyer, 36, were doing what they loved, fighting bushfires, when a burnt, 'widow maker' gum tree fell and crushed the cab of their fire truck, killing them instantly.
"Just half a second either way and they would have been OK," said visibly moved Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons yesterday.
He spent the afternoon at Horsley Park RFS Station with Geoff and Andrew's partners, family members and the crew of the tightly knit fire fighting community.
Andrew's wife Melissa and Geoff's fianceé Jess Hayes, whose children Charlotte and Harvey were born just four days apart, stood among the yellow and blue clad fire fighters and tearfully hugged.
"I am still in denial," Melissa said. "It is always in the back of your mind but the boys have always got each other's back."
Gesturing to the gathered crew members she said: "Our kids have got all these aunties and uncles now and that gives me a lot of comfort.
"They can hear the stories about their dads and how mighty they have been."
Jess said Geoff was "a super proud dad who did anything to help his family and friends.
"He would drive me mad giving up stuff at home to help people … I would give anything for that now.
"I just want him to be remembered as the hero he was," she said.
Flowers were piled high outside the station to honour the two young fathers as stunned crew milled around the fire trucks, reluctant to go home.
The brigade's sacrifice and commitment to helping others has been replicated in RFS stations across NSW during an unprecedented fire season and those volunteer heroes and their stories will be saluted in The Daily Telegraph this week.
Mr Fitzsimmons said Horsley Park, like RFS brigades across the state, is more than a fire brigade. "It is a social hub that brings people close together," he said. A family and a community.
The day after hearing two of their colleagues had paid the ultimate price in the ferocious fires near Buxton, the members of Horsley Park took the spare truck and went back to work.
"The crew got into the spare truck in memory of Geoff and Andrew and went out to fight fires in some of the worst conditions," Mr Fitzsimmons said. "They had six seats but they could have filled another 10."
"This is a tragic accident that has cut us all to the very core," he said. But fight goes on with five days of tactical back burning before the weather cranks the fires up again next weekend.
Brigade captain Darren Nation said Geoff and Andrew would have wanted them straight back at the fire front
"For me it was to show the brigade that it was a tragic accident and if the shoe was on the other foot those boys would have done exactly the same thing.
"They were so happy when they got on the truck and left," he said. "They died doing what they loved."
Mr Nation lost two of his best friends. Andrew had been best man at both of his weddings and they regular went camping and fishing together.
"I met Andrew when he was 18 during some bad fires and he came to the station and offered us the water in his swimming pool," Mr Nation said. "I accepted the water and asked him to join up."
Mr Nation received the call that the truck had been hit, killing Andrew and Geoff, and leaving three crew in the back seat injured, shaken but alive late on Thursday night.
"I didn't believe it," he said. "I felt angry and in disbelief."
Later he had the heartbreaking task of telling the brigade members what had happened.
Geoff's father Wes had been out on the fire front in the shift before his son. "I got home and had a shower and went to bed," he said.
"I was woken up by two chaplains and a police officer, it was the worst wake up call I have ever had."