Rebecca Quilliam

Rebecca Quilliam is senior reporter at the NZME. News Service office in Wellington.

Rescue heroes: 'We had to do something'

Royal Humane Society of NZ braveryaward recipients, Station Officer Brett Delamere, left, and Rural Fire Officer Eric Spittal after receiving their medals. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Royal Humane Society of NZ braveryaward recipients, Station Officer Brett Delamere, left, and Rural Fire Officer Eric Spittal after receiving their medals. Photo / Mark Mitchell

A young couple trapped in a burning car, filling with smoke and with a high voltage power line draped over it, called their two children to say goodbye.

That was what pushed two firefighters to break the rules to get the couple out alive, the heroic pair said today.

At Government House in Wellington today, the Governor-General, Lieutenant General Sir Jerry Mateparae, presented Brett Delamere a Royal Humane Society of New Zealand Silver Medal and Eric Spittal a bronze medal for risking their lives to save the couple.

The couple was driving along State Highway 1 north of Oamaru in October 2008 when their car collided with a power pole. The impact brought down the live transmission line, which came to rest across the roof of the vehicle.

Power was arcing through the vehicle causing the surrounding ground to become live. Fire developed in the vehicle's engine bay and the tyres caught light.

"I think the thing that really triggered it for me to do something about it was seeing the lady there ring her kids and then she said goodbye," volunteer firefighter Mr Delamere said today. "We had to do something."

The first firefighter on the scene, Mr Spittal was thrown off his feet by an electric shock as he reached the car. That wasn't enough to stop him - he then climbed under the vehicle but was forced back when electricity started arcing through his body.

Mr Spittal has never forgotten the look on the woman's face as he was desperately trying to put out the flames with extinguishers.

"She had accepted her fate and that's something I've never been able to get out of my mind."

With just moments before the tyres collapsed, earthing the car and putting the couple in grave danger, Mr Delamere used a fibreglass pole to lift the live line off the car. His first attempt failed, but his second was good enough to give the couple a small window of opportunity to flee the vehicle.

Mr Delamere said his technique wasn't by the book, "but we're all volunteers, so they can't fire us".

"The (fire department) wasn't happy, but it was a perfect result."

Also receiving a Humane Society Silver medal today was Senior Constable Michael Johnston who was first on the scene where 15-year-old Dion Latta was trapped upside-down in a waterfall in the Motatapu Gorge on New Year's Day last year.

Dion's foot was caught between boulders in an awkward position on the edge of a three-metre waterfall, leaving him fully submerged, but able to breathe via an air pocket.

"Friends and family were looking to me for answers and initially, I didn't have those answers," Mr Johnston said.

He tried numerous times to free Dion - at one stage being caught by the strong current that pushed Mr Johnston 1.5m into the deep pool of water below the waterfall.

His actions probably "bordered on insanity - you do things you wouldn't normally do".

But he continued because Dion was still alive. "We had to save him, bottom line."

After three hours, Dion was eventually rescued alive but was in a critical condition, and died from hypothermia the next day in Dunedin Hospital.

- APNZ

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