Bystanders watched motionless at a distance as Adam Pearse frantically rescued a woman trapped upside down in a mangled, upturned four-wheel-drive about to burst into flames.
He was among four locals to receive bravery awards from the Royal Humane Society of Australasia at Melbourne’s Government House this month.
Mr Pearse was driving along Geelong/Bacchus Marsh Road at Balliang East in October 2012 when the car immediately ahead veered across to the wrong side of the road and collided with a four-wheel-drive towing a boat.
Travelling in the 4WD was a woman, her partner and her 18-year-old stepdaughter.
The vehicle rolled three times before landing on its roof. The engine was already alight when Mr Pearse arrived first on the scene.
He remembered instinctively instructing a nearby farmer to fill a bucket with water as he used a knife to cut the woman free of her seatbelt before dragging her to safety.
Three years on, the Corio resident still cannot fathom how other witnesses failed to help.
“We had minutes, minutes to help this woman,” Mr Pearse said.
“People just stood there and did nothing while this lady was screaming.
“I screamed out to them to help me get her out and some of them actually told me to get away from the car; that there was nothing I could do and that I should just wait for emergency services.”
But Mr Pearse said the woman would have died if he had done nothing.
“I almost got the fire out.
“It must have been a matter of seconds, and I’m talking seconds, before the whole thing was ablaze.
“You’re not prepared to see that sort of stuff. I felt like I couldn’t breathe because of all the smoke.
“It was really scary.”
Mr Pearse was treated in hospital for smoke inhalation and was unable to talk for a fortnight.
Within 10 days the trauma of the incident led him to buy a small fire extinguisher, which now lives in the boot of his car; a simple addition that he claims would have made “a world of difference”.
Mr Pearse applied for nine free counselling sessions at the time of the incident but was told the paperwork process would have taken about six months.
He said he was “disappointed” with the system because he had been unable to talk about the incident until now.
Mr Pearse has remained in close contact with the survivor of the accident, Robyn, who lost two family members in the crash.
She nominated him for a Silver medal and Certificate of Merit. They pair speak over the phone every week.
Mr Pearse said he hoped his acceptance of the award would bring some comfort and closure for Robyn.
Other award recipients included Ashok Hans who in December 2012 rescued a “badly injured” driver from a crashed and burning car at Portarlington.
A speeding motorist had collided into the side of another car. Mr Hans and another man, who had driven past, saw the crashed car in a ditch against trees and bushes on a large slope, with smoke coming from the engine.
The car doors were jammed, so a piece of broken drainage pipe was used to break the window. Both men reached into the car and lifted the driver out moments before the car exploded and was engulfed in flames.
Craig Oxley and David Robertson, of Newcomb, earned a Certificate of Merit for rescuing an elderly man from his burning home in the wee hours of 29 April, 2013. Mr Robertson used a rock to smash a window and walked through the house before searching through thick smoke to locate the man who sat unresponsive on the bedroom floor.
Originally published at Geelong Independent.