On route to 3am car rollover near Ross Creek, Ballarat Fire Brigade captain Mark Cartledge got the call no-one in uniform ever wants to get: it’s one of yours.
A Sebastopol CFA LPG vehicle had rolled multiple times after being hit by a motorist who ignored a give-way sign on April 21, 2016. Four firies were injured in the crash, with one still trapped in car’s warped frame when the brigade arrived.
To make matters worse, the person trapped was veteran firefighter Bill Cook, Mr Cartledge’s close mate.
“I was warned Bill was involved, but not knowing the extent of entrapment or injuries … your mind’s running a thousand miles an hour trying to work out how you’re going to get them out,” Mr Cartledge said.
“All collisions we go to, we treat the same. But when you know someone involved you’ve got those emotions running through your head.”
Someone from Ballarat City Fire Brigade had to hold Mr Cook’s head and neck until he could be cut out of the mangled 4WD. He’d broken his C2 and T 4-5 vertebrae.
Mr Cook asked the first responders to tell Ballarat crew that it was him trapped, but admitted Mr Cartledge was still “white as a piece of paper” when he saw him.
“I was actually a bit sad Mark was actually there, knowing him so well, it was hard,” he said.
“But I’m thankful to be upright and still breathing.”
Of the crash experience, Mr Cook remembers that his fire captain, Joe Jensen, “was sitting beside me and he pointed out the car on my left”.
Then he said ‘it’s still coming, it’s still coming’ and he plowed through the intersection, didn’t break, went straight through us.Bill Cook, recounting the 3am smash that left him with broken vertebrae
It’s been a slow recovery for Mr Cook, only returning to work in July. The Ballarat Fire Brigade received a commendation from CFA chief officer Steve Warrington for their role in the rescue.
Mr Cook said returning to the CFA had given him some “self worth”, after dealing with the “very frustrating” nerve damage and stiffness that remains from the crash.
“It’s been hard for both of us, especially in the early days,” Mr Cartledge said. “Seeing Bill at his most vulnerable, then watching him recover, which has been absolutely brilliant.”
The pair now have a plea for the public: pay attention when behind the wheel, and always let emergency services past when on the road.
Mr Cartledge said when on the way to assist at the Wendouree train fatality on Thursday, a driver on Mair Street was completely oblivious to emergency sirens.
The Ballarat Fire Brigade responded to six serious rescues last week, which he said was an unusually high number.
“Motorists just aren’t giving way, like what happened to Bill, and aren’t giving way to emergency vehicles, not pulling over or stopping,” Mr Cartledge said.
“People need to be aware of what’s happening around them on the roads, and make the right choices.
“Keep an eye out for the emergency services, and give way, because the incident they’re going to could be your own incident one day.”
The 2016 crash caused a ‘ripple effect’: it meant the Sebastopol CFA, which services a radius of 100km, were without equipment and the specialised vehicle for months.
“It took us out of action for some time, until we could purchase replacement gear,” Mr Cook said.
“My recovery has been so long, but I got through with some good friends and family support behind me. It’s been an interesting journey, I’ve learnt a lot.”