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This sad little juxtaposition of the helper, the helpless and the ever helpful SES

By McIvor Times

I SQUEEZED her fingers and they twitched. Barely perceptible, but felt. Shared even.

Then, nothing.

Stillness amidst the chaos.

Emptiness within the growing, curious, morbidly so, crowd.

Horror and disbelief poured through me even as that rain started to ease. Bleakness filled my mind as clouds parted to reveal a glowing, dipping sun.

Oil and water shimmered on the road; my shoes were wet and heavy with sleet and mud.

Trembling on the phone to the emergency services I confirmed a woman I knew nothing about, yet felt an odd kinship with, was gone.

It would have been instant. And she appeared to not have suffered.

I was not involved in the accident and nor did I witness it.

But it happened only seconds, and metres, ahead of me.

The weather had closed in so quickly and visibility was shocking – it was even too unsafe to pull over, so I reduced my speed dramatically.

But having almost lost control doing even that, somehow fortunately stopping short on wet grass. Even now all I can feel is a renewed sense of gratitude and appreciation for my life, my partner, my friends, my job and my treasured dog Maggie.

I am grateful.

Gratitude my eyes can still see, my lungs can breathe – a sensation you never realised could be so sweet. So urgent.

I truly believe we are all called to live honourably and well; to love ourselves, others and the environment around.

And to make a positive difference, no matter how small, when and where we can.

That’s all.

Yet for this woman, who I would never know, there was nothing I, nor anyone else, could have done to save her.

What hurts the most, still hurts, is knowing she had a family.

It’s going to take a long time before memories start to fade.

However when I look out to a sunset, the ocean, the mountains, I do hope every now and again I will think of her.

I will breathe in and appreciate the beauty and fragility of life.

I will appreciate the ordinary as best I can.

Because miracles exist in the mundane. All you have to do is look for them.

The second act of this tragedy has no ending, but so much pain. For which there are no real answers.

Mark Anderson comes from Tooborac, a dot on the map near Heathcote in central Victoria.

Unlike the woman whose hand signalled her last message, he is alive.

Lucky to be alive.

Sort of.

In September 2017 Mark did not die in the high-speed Pyalong car crash which claimed the life of a 40-year-old woman.

I might not have seen the accident but the aftermath is indelibly stored in my mind, Mark went through it all and remembers nothing – in itself probably a good thing because first responders would describe the scene as one of the worst they had encountered.

YET at the time, for me, oddly, there was strange sense of stillness and peace, too. Despite the growing crowd, a gaping emptiness filled the air, as bystanders realised one person was killed.

The accident happened when two vehicles collided head-on, on a two-carriage single lane highway.

It was a Monday, about 4.40 pm, that September.

An extreme weather event unexpectedly struck the area, reduced visibility to zero almost immediately. There was rain, sleet, fog, even snow.

Conditions were so perilous other cars skidded and lost control. Despite the devastating death and crippling injury it would be a miracle no-one else was harmed. Physically.

It was weather that day. But for too many reasons these tragedies keep playing themselves out, over and over, on rural roads.

If it’s not the weather then it’s alcohol and drugs, rogue animals, fatigue, speed, driver distraction, occasionally all of them – so many ways to be distracted.

Two years earlier Pyalong had been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons; that time four young men died after their car ran off the road; an accident, disaster, the coroner put down to drugs and/or fatigue.

In 2017 the accident was wholly attributed to weather.

That said, we are also living in an age of smart phone addiction. Heathcote SES chief controller Marc Pitt Unit said mobile phones had become a “huge” issue in rural road accidents.

“The message just isn’t getting through,” he said. “We attend the scene and find a person has died because they’re half way through a text, selfie or snapchat.

“It’s heartbreaking and the effects are enormous.”

The SES rarely has an opportunity to follow-up with surviving victims. They attend incidents, voluntarily, because that is what they are called to do. But despite the strong support and counselling they receive; the work has an impact. Must have an impact.

“You naturally wonder what has happened after you rescue a person,” Marc said. “But mostly, we’re left without closure. This can be hard, because things mount over time. But you’ve just got to keep on going.’’

But in a stunning twist of fate, just after Anzac Day 2019, the Heathcote SES unit had the chance to reconnect with Mark Anderson, someone they had assisted, extracted from a maze of torn metal, this danse macabre in a bush setting.

Heathcote SES member George Dimech met Mark at the intersection of the Northern Hwy and Majors Line Rd in Tooborac in the days after Easter. They were both inspecting an accident site that triggered a bushfire, just before Good Friday. The road had been closed and thousands of holiday makers impacted.

Mark was flying a drone and the two got talking. Before long, they made the incredible connection: George was part of the team that cut Mark from his car 18 months earlier. Just kilometres down the road.

But that’s not all. George had recently met – again, by accident – one of the first on the scene responders.

The one who had called triple zero; who sat in his vehicle to stop him from moving, all before the SES arrived.

Me.

On Thursday, May 2, we gathered, Mark, the SES and me. A reunion of sorts, an opportunity to share our shared experience in safer surrounds; and safer distance from that stretch of road. And importantly, to gain some sort of closure.

I was extremely nervous meeting Mark, I’m sure the SES members were as well. I was terrified he might even be angry with me – although I could not say why. Or there would be no connection; we’d have nothing to say.

In the end, though, it was a bit like catching up with an old friend you met in a dream.

Mark the survivor was horrifically injured that day; barely survived. He now walks with a cane, is in constant pain; will never work again.

This sad little juxtaposition – the helper, the helpless and the SES; all just a terrible roll of the dice.

My car, a three-door Toyota hatchback, was two cars behind Mark’s much larger vehicle. If I was in his place, I would have been killed instantly.

Twenty months later, this remains my take-home emotion.

When my car came to a halt after a blind skid, I could see I had narrowly missed a large tree and gully. Take your pick about which might have done me.

After a very deep breath, a shudder, I looked up and my day, my life, suddenly got horribly worse.

I saw scrap metal from the car, chunks off the engine, seemingly suspended in a still foggy sky. The only thing clear was the realisation this was an accident which had only just happened.

First that 000 call then leaping out of my car, away from my own scare.

Wraithlike, coming out of the gloom, a crowd was gathering around Mark.

He was conscious and clearly in excruciating pain. The other driver wasn’t moving; did not seem in any pain.

Was she alive?

There were only a couple of ways to tell.

I made my way across the bitumen and squeezed her fingers. They twitched, ever so slightly.

Dead, damaged and me; for me in the coming months it would be increasingly hard to cope. I struggled with motivation and getting out of bed. I felt teary and agitated at unpredictable, even awkward, times. Everywhere I went I saw her. I heard her. I felt her.

Sadly, I also felt unable to talk about it for a long time, too long. I felt as if most people wanted me to ‘get on with it’. After all, I didn’t know her.

Didn’t I?

Road trauma is aptly named. Like silent dominoes that fall, you never know how far, how wide the ripple extends. One death on the road can spark pain in hundreds, maybe thousands of lives. Then there are the living victims: the months, if not years of rehabilitation, pain management, even permanent disablement.

And the mental scars.

The SES – and all emergency service personnel – do it tough. They do the work everyone else is too busy and/or fearful to do. They do it because they are called to a life of service. They develop camaraderie and bonds that support them.

None of it is likely to be enough. Human, they are fallible.

Heathcote is a small town, we live and work together. When tragedy strikes we are connected to the people who suffer.

This is both the strength and tragedy of community.

Underpinned by an incredible collective resilience that drags you up from the mud. That says “hey mate, it’s going to be OK”.

Since the accident, I have changed.

I have chosen to make my life better because of what I saw.

Because of the person who died.

The Victorian Government is holding a Road Safety Summit on May 31; charged with investigating the spike in the road toll.

On behalf of that woman, of Mark and most urgently, on behalf of my local SES, I invite ministers and delegates to include Heathcote as part of their rural and regional round tables.

To better understand the dangers of driving on rural roads.

See, hear and hopefully feel our pain, the impact death and injury has.

Come talk to us.

Talk to people with firsthand experience, all over the state.

Not just in the day, but just before dawn or dusk, when animals are active and unpredictable.

Not just in fine weather, but in the depths of dark, freezing winter.

On our lonely, straight roads, where even the slightest of mistakes, a hidden pothole, can spell disaster.

On sweeping bends, where it’s easy to misjudge speed.

At all those trees with their sad little crosses and memorials nailed in place; or anchored beneath.

Come and meet us and we will share our stories with you.

It’s a path we’ll walk together.

It’s one of the best routes we have to take Towards Zero.