‘They’re gone’: Moment chef’s world crashed down
IT WAS the tragic story that united an entire country in grief. A young family killed early on Boxing Day morning in 2011, most likely due to faulty lights or a power board near their tinder-dry Christmas tree.
The Golinski family received no warning from the two smoke alarms in their Noosa home as they slept. By the time Rachael Golinski woke and yelled to her husband Matt that the house was on fire, the home was already engulfed in flames.
Rachael died as she tried to protect her twin daughters, Sage and Willow, 12, from the flames.
The only survivor was TV chef Matt, who had risen to fame through TV's Ready Steady Cook.
His battle to save his youngest daughter, Starlia, 10, left him with critical burns to 40 per cent of his body. His attempts to get into her bedroom were unsuccessful and he was driven outside by the heat.
Sadly, Starlia also died in the flames. Matt's injuries were so bad doctors kept him in a coma for more than eight weeks.
When he finally woke in excruciating pain and unable to see (there was some concern the blaze might have irreparably damaged his eyesight), he wanted a mobile phone to call his wife Rachael.
"Sorry mate, they're all gone," his father Keith had to tell him.
Over the next four months Matt endured dozens of skin grafts and operations under general anaesthetic, and horrifically painful physiotherapy to bring movement back to his limbs. The joints in his elbows had calcified and his arms were locked at right angles.
When he left the hospital, carrying all his worldly possessions in a couple of bags, he moved in with his father.
"It took some stupid, heavy drinking and all that sort of stupid stuff that you do where you just want to destroy yourself. But in the end, there's no explanation for it … the only thing you can do is just accept sometimes that's how life goes and there's absolutely nothing you can do to change it."
Eight months after the tragedy, a heartbroken Matt told The Courier Mail: "I have no idea why I was spared from the fire but I am determined to look forward and live a life that would make them proud.
"I want to honour the memory of Rachael and our girls by finding a silver lining somewhere in these dark clouds.
"To say my world has been turned upside down is an understatement. Although the loss of my family is unfathomable, at this stage of my recovery, I am simply grateful to be alive and to have experienced the love of my beautiful wife and three daughters."
After multiple fundraising events run by friends and family, "quite a pot" of money had been raised to help Matt with his recovery. But his friends couldn't believe it - he donated much of it on to others. "I was like, 'I don't want their money', it's the love that I appreciated," Matt says.
He donated some of the money to the Royal Brisbane Hospital's burns unit and bought a car for a young local girl who needed one to get her wheelchair around. "I jumped in because I could."
Matt says one of the things that saved him was the distraction and endorphins that came from exercise.
Running had always been part of his life and within six weeks of coming out of hospital - despite stern warning from doctors and family - he completed a 5km run.
Then in July, 46-year-old Matt finished the gruelling team event, the 96km Kokoda Challenge in the Gold Coast hinterland, in 24 hours.
He has since competed half marathons and eventually a full marathon.
"For me, it really is the thing that's got me through emotionally, mentally, over the past six years: keeping myself busy and exercising as much as I possibly can."
During his rehabilitation, Matt also fell in love.
Erin Yarwood, now 32, was a fitness trainer working as an assistant to the centre's physiotherapists and occupational therapists who were helping Matt recover.
Initially they struck up a friendship, but it soon evolved into something deeper.
She was amazed by his fighting spirit, and he was taken with her caring nature.
"I could see with her this sort of genuine compassion for all these people that were in really vulnerable situations," he says.
"They had strokes, they were confused and they were frustrated and she was just wonderfully compassionate with them."
In 2016, on the top of Mount Cooroora in a spot where they always rested at the end of their climbs, Matt proposed to her. "I was a little bit in shock," she says now. "And he said if I said no, that he'd push me off the mountain!"
Then in August last year, Golinski and Yarwood welcomed their baby girl Aluna into the world, nearly six years after the tragic fire.
After the couple had failed to conceive naturally, they did a tour of doctors until eventually one suggested he put Matt under a general anaesthetic so he could investigate whether he had any viable sperm.
"Out of the millions or billions of sperm that guys normally have, the surgeon found 14," says Erin. "So then we had a chance to try IVF, and we were successful the first go. She's a very special little one."
Golinski's father Keith announced the newborn's arrival on a local radio station, saying many people had shared Matt's pain when he lost his family in the fire, so "people deserve to share some of the joy as well".
Matt tells Australian Story he doesn't want to be thought of as the man who got burnt and lost his family. He doesn't want pity. "I just want to be me and move on with the life that I have now, you know? I'll always have that bit of sadness but at the same time, I don't want to be defined by that one monumentally bad day that I had," he says.
"I'll miss my girls forever, but there's nothing I can do about that, so all I can do is accept it."
Matt Golinski's story Running From Empty airs at 8 tonight on Australian Story on ABC TV, and on ABC iview