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Medals for train rescue heroes

By Andrew Koubaridis

Matthieu Mereau says the train driver thought he had "wiped all three of us out''. Photo / Richard Robinson
Matthieu Mereau says the train driver thought he had "wiped all three of us out''. Photo / Richard Robinson

It was a horrifying scene - a terrified woman trapped on a railway line in an electric wheelchair as a freight train ploughed towards her, unable to stop.

The 22-year-old has cerebral palsy, is deaf and hasn't been able to speak since childhood. She could do nothing to save herself.

But two strangers were close by - Matthieu Mereau, 25, who was on his way to work, and Marzena Simpson, 35, who'd just left her car at a garage.

The pair's incredible rescue mission over the next few moments has resulted in both being recognised with bravery awards.

"There was no time to be scared," Mrs Simpson told the Herald. "In a situation like that you just have to act. You're scared afterwards. I was really scared afterward, but not at the time."

The pair ran towards the level crossing on Morningside Drive in the inner Auckland suburb of Kingsland to help.

They struggled to free the woman's wheelchair, but its rear wheels were caught in the gap between the path and the tracks.

She was stuck in the middle of the tracks and directly in the train's path so, in a final act of desperation, they tipped the chair and all three fell forward - barely a second before the train reached them.

The woman was dragged for a short distance. Her left leg was seriously injured, and part of her foot had to be amputated.

Mrs Simpson's knee was injured when the train struck her a glancing blow in February's incident.

Mr Mereau has been awarded a silver medal by the Royal Humane Society of New Zealand and received it this week in London, where he is working as an architecture graduate.

He said it was complete surprise to be given the award, and even more of surprise to be given it at Buckingham Palace.

"I still struggle to understand why I should be given an award but it's still nice."

His mother flew to London for the ceremony to be his guest.

Even though he was half a world away he still had occasional flashbacks about the incident.

"At the moment it's when the tube comes out of the tunnel really fast. That's the biggest thing, but I also notice people on wheelchairs quite a lot."

While he wasn't around level crossings much, the sound of the bells was haunting.

"They're not my favourite sound."

The ceremony was "civilised as you would expect".

"What was amazing about it was my story was only one of the stories being celebrated. There were six of us there and all of them were just incredible to hear about the situations people did amazing things."

He said the mood was a happy one but the enormity of what had happened wasn't far away.

"You could tell people were also thinking about the stress of the moments [being described]. As they read the citations people were going through it in their heads as they were listening to the account of what they'd done. And some people were emotional as well."

Mrs Simpson will receive her award next year.

She told the Herald she saw Mr Mereau trying to push the chair free.

"He asked me for help and of course I stopped and tried - and only a few seconds later the train was coming. It all happened so fast."

The incident showed how life could change in an instant. Her husband was supposed to drop the car off but she went in his place.

"Then they couldn't find my booking, so I was 10 minutes longer. It was all luck I was there at the right time. It's all those things you think of later. It was meant to be."

The woman's mother, who did not want to be identified, said her family wanted the pair's bravery acknowledged.

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"What they did was phenomenal. We specifically wanted some form of recognition. What they did was hero status."

She thought their actions were a "reflection of how we want society to behave".

"They did it instinctively. Here are these two people who stepped up ... Everything can be so negative and there's moaning and groaning and here are these people who did something phenomenal."

Her daughter was recovering well.

"She's still having rehabilitation and there are some gaps. But from what it could have been ... When I show people the injuries they can't believe she is still alive."

She had returned to work and was trying to get back to normal.

"She does have ongoing problems. We don't know what that means long term but she is working hard and is determined."

She wants Mr Mereau and Mrs Simpson to be honoured.

"They are the epitome of how you want society [and] how to behave towards one another ... It's about people caring about each other.

"Young people who without any thought to their own safety did what they did. The more I learn about the accident it's still inconceivable with the speed they did it and how they pushed her wheelchair over. It's just amazing what they did."

After the accident Mr Mereau said it had been a "close shave".

The train driver had told him he thought he'd "wiped all three of us out".

- NZ Herald

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