‘At one stage I literally begged for help’

ARTHURS Creek CFA captain David McGahy had a message that he did not think anyone could ignore. “I’ve got people who are literally dead and dying by the side of the road. It’s a horrendous scene. You’ve got to help me,” he begged a policeman.
It was one of his many pleas for help that would be ignored on the Black Saturday weekend. He had just been through the fires with his crew and then drove into the little town of Strathewen. It was razed and its residents traumatised, homeless or missing.
Yesterday he told the Bushfires Royal Commission of police and CFA chiefs who failed to send help, a council clean-up crew that left because it was too dangerous, and a crime-scene officer who refused to cover the face of a dead man lying exposed in the middle of an oval. “Not my job, mate,” the officer told Mr McGahy.
Mr McGahy told the commission: “No matter who I appealed to for help, no one helped me. I was in desperate trouble and no one would help.”
Twenty-seven people were later found dead in Strathewen.
Mr McGahy said the fire raced towards his tankers in Eagles Nest Road about 4pm, spotting fiercely: “In a couple of minutes, they would be the size of tennis courts. In four to five minutes, it would be the size of a football ground, and then the country in between exploded. That’s the only way I can describe it.”
After the fire passed, he tried to get into Strathewen. “I knew what it was going to be like, worse than my worst dreams, but I knew that people were going to be there.”
He finally got in about 7pm. In the gruff voice of a farmer, but with the occasional catch in his throat, he told of what happened next: “There literally wasn’t anything that wasn’t burnt, that wasn’t destroyed.
“We came over the hill and the young chap that was driving for me, he saw his parents’ house fully enveloped in flames. It was difficult, very difficult.
“I got further up Chads Creek Road and . . . there was a body up there. I went up and there was a chap I had known for 40 years dead in the middle of the oval.
“All the time I was putting out calls to the Kangaroo Ground (incident control centre). I think at one stage I literally begged for help. They had a standard response: ‘We’ll get back to you.’ To the best of my knowledge, they never got back to me. Not at all.”
He said repeated requests for fuel and other supplies were also ignored. He felt “as if Strathewen has dropped into a black hole and doesn’t exist”.
He drove to a police roadblock and begged the officer manning it to return with him. The policeman said he was under orders and could not leave. He directed Mr McGahy to a police commander in St Andrews. Mr McGahy got there about 10.30pm.
“I tried to explain to him what the situation was that was facing us up there. I said: ‘I have got people literally by the side of the road. I have got a member down (and) they are trying to get him out, and I believe I have got 20 people trapped up in Strathewen.’ He said: ‘You take care of fire brigade business and I will take care of mine.’ ”
The officer ordered a bulldozer to help clear the roads so that searching could begin, but it never arrived, Mr McGahy said. The member he was trying to evacuate later died.
Local people got bulldozers and trucks and worked by torchlight, he said: “The people were working feverishly. That’s why I couldn’t understand . . . why the agencies couldn’t help us.”
He said he saw a convoy of trucks carrying men with chainsaws about 8.30pm. “I spoke to the blokes in the command car and said: ‘Beauty!’ I said: ‘Where are you going?’ And he said: ‘We’re off, mate . . . It’s too dangerous for us.’ ”
Mr McGahy said he was incredulous. “I admit I went wild. I couldn’t convince them and I went off . . . they went and we were on our own again.”
With the roads blocked, he and a colleague decided on a two-hour walk through the bush to find the property where they believed up to 20 people could be trapped. They walked slowly, stepping over fallen trees every three or four metres, and listening to other trees crash around them. Other than that it was silent until, about 2am, they heard a sudden “Hello”. A man and woman who had sheltered in the overflow pipe of a dam came out of hiding. They had been there since the fire went through, too frightened to leave.
“They shared the experience with a kangaroo that I believe had hopped in there with them . . . To see those two people come out – I won’t forget it in a while.”
They found the house with 19 people safe inside. “It was so good to see the little kids asleep and the smiling faces.”
He returned to Strathewen at 6am and started work at the fire station again two hours later. “People were gathered there already looking for help, with requests such as: ‘I haven’t seen my wife since the front came through, could you go look for her?’ And that’s what we did.”
About 11am, the body of his friend was still on the oval, visible from the road. He asked a policeman putting up crime-scene tape to cover the body. He said: “No, mate, not our job.”
“So my son and myself, we went up to the middle of the oval and we cut the end off the cricket matting and we dragged it behind the command car and covered his body because it was just the respectful thing to do.”
First published in The Age.