RELUCTANT Coffs Coast hero Ron Wall is a recipient of the second highest decoration for bravery in Australia - The Star of Courage.
In an honest, open and moving account, Mr Wall has retold how he was willing to give up his life for a complete stranger at a fiery crash scene in Queensland six years ago.
His powerful account of bravery, loss and loneliness features in a new book Brave written by Mark Whittaker and published this week. An Edited Extract from the book.
Talking to Ron Wall on the phone for the first time, I think that I probably won’t get much out of him. He seems bright and friendly. Robust.
A very Aussie kind of bloke and so I suspect he won’t give much away on the emotions front. We arrange to meet at his business, a furniture warehouse on an industrial estate in Coffs Harbour. We sit outside his warehouse. I’m offered coffee as he starts telling his story and I soon realise that appearances really do count for nothing. “I always used to think things happened for a reason,” he begins, “but, ahh, shit just happens.
It was just coincidental that all these things happened at the same time. My mother and father had both just died. My wife left me not long after that, after 21½ years of marriage. I was in litigation over another matter. I had just stopped gambling, trying to get my life back on track. Here I was, pottering along the highway. For once in my life I wasn’t being a selfish gambling bastard. I was a normal person. Thinking clearly.”
And so begins Ron’s extraordinary story.
In another universe that day, driving in the opposite direction on the Logan Motorway in Brisbane’s south in February 2004, is a young woman whose life by comparison seems perfect. She is happily married with two sons, aged seven and almost two. She has taken seven weeks off her job as a police officer to move into a house that she and her husband have just finished building.
That morning, the kids watched cartoons before nagging her to take them for a swim at Grandma’s. Why not? She packed them in the Toyota RAV4, told her husband she loved him, kissed him goodbye and drove off into the Brisbane summer heat.
Ron is going home to Toowoomba, heading west on the Logan Motorway, when he hears an explosion. Seconds later, the ordinariness of the motorway passes into chaos. Across the nature strip of broken shrubs and trees he sees scattered cars, a truck, smoke. He pulls over and runs down into the ditch dividing the motorway. There is a baby lying there on top of a bush. Two people arrive at the same time. They stand, looking at the child, dazed.
He looks at the infant. There isn’t a mark on him. His colour is good. Everything looks good, but something inside Ron tells him, “Don’t touch this baby.” He races off to the shattered vehicles. One is lying on its side with flames coming out of the bonnet. He sees that a woman is lying on the driver’s side, hard against the road. Behind her is a boy. Looks about seven. So he climbs up onto the passenger’s side door, 1.7m off the ground. He opens it and gets into the vehicle. The door swings closed on top of him. Flames are just a metre away now, where the engine is pressed into the dash.
The boy is unconscious. Ron talks to him anyway. “You’ll be OK, little fella. I’ll get you out of here.” He takes off the kid’s seatbelt and with some difficulty lifts his body as gently as possible out of the compressed back-seat area. Another man has climbed up on the side of the vehicle and is holding the door open. Ron hands the boy’s limp body up to him, before turning to the unconscious woman in the driver’s seat.
“I’ve got your boy out,” he tells her. “Now I’m going to get you out.” He grapples with her seatbelt and gets it off, then starts pulling her body back through the gap between the front seats. But it won’t come through. Her feet are wedged up under the dash.
The flames are getting larger. People outside the vehicle are screaming: “Get out! Get out! It’s going to blow!” But he stays put. If I’m really quick I might just make it out. He grabs her under her arms and tries again. No good. She moans. “You’ll be right, baby,” he says. “I’ll get you out.”
He tries again, straining with all his strength. But she won’t budge. All the while, the flames are building. Plastic melting from the dashboard is dripping onto her legs. He brushes it off. Foul chemical smoke fills the cabin. The bloke holding the door is telling him to get out.
“Don’t worry, baby. I’m not going to leave you.” He tries again, yanking on her armpits with all that he has. But he is feeling weaker as the smoke fills his lungs. And as the voices outside continue urging him to get out, he gets a dreamlike feeling. Like this is meant to be. Almost like he’s been here before. “I won’t leave ya, baby,” he says. He has failed to keep his promise to get her out, but he feels bound by that promise, so he decides he will die with her. He starts readying for the explosion, figuring out where he can lie on top of her to protect her from it, reasoning that at least she might be able to survive. The clarity of his mind feels good.“Crazy, I know,” he says, sitting out on the Coffs Harbour footpath with his mug of coffee. “I was in there about five minutes at that stage. I wasn’t going to leave her. I was just going to die with her. That’s what’s f..ked me, see. We were both going to die. I couldn’t leave her so I had to stay there and die with her.”
I ask him, what was behind that reasoning? What had so instantly committed him to this stranger? “I’d told her I was going to get her out, but I couldn’t get her out. So I could not leave her to die on her own. I don’t know. This woman I’ve never seen before in my whole life and I can’t leave her. I know it doesn’t make sense...
“I was exhausted. Buggered. I was having trouble breathing. But it was like I got this big shot of adrenalin. Give it one last go. Just get her out. I tried her knees in a different position and I gave it a bit of extra tug, and with all the heat and the fire, the metal must have stretched a bit up under the dash and one foot came out, then the other one. [He delivers this line with excitement, wonder.] How’s that! You know that was the happiest moment of my life. One moment I’m about to die, two moments later her feet come out and... can you imagine the emotional ride of it all? I screamed, ‘I got her!’ I got my hands under her and lifted her up to the top and they took her.
“I looked around and her handbag was down there, her mobile. I stuck them all under the door. I searched around in the back to make sure there was no one else in there and I opened up the console and saw all these CDs. I thought, I’ve got to get all this stuff out of the car before it catches on fire. Then I remember saying to myself, ‘What the f..k are you doing? GET OUT OF HERE!’ I was really going into shock. I couldn’t quite climb out. I was half out and they dragged me out.”
Just as they hauled him out, somebody came over with a fire extinguisher and put the fire out, but seconds later, as he walked away, it burst back into flames. Ron went over to the baby. A woman was working on him. He went over to the woman he’d just saved, who’d been laid out next to her older son.
Police came a little later and took Ron’s name and address. He made it home and started ringing the hospital, learning that the baby had died. That really screwed with Ron’s head. He’d done nothing to help the baby. I should have saved the baby. He threw it all back on himself. It was his fault.
Over the coming days he kept ringing the hospital to find out about the other two. “They’ve gotta live.” The older boy hung between life and death for a couple of days. He’d broken his arm, his leg and his back. He would never walk again. The mother had massive internal injuries. She’d broken both legs, both knees, both ankles. She had bad burns to her left arm and cuts to her face. She woke up in hospital a week later.
Ron had to go to Beenleigh police station to make a statement but four times he found himself driving to the coast instead, getting pissed and staying in a motel overnight before going home. “The police rang me up. The coppers were good. They came out to my house. They patted me on the back. ‘Do you need any help?’ I said, ‘I’m not going well.’ They offered me free counselling. I went to her once. I didn’t like her.”
He hit the booze hard. One night, he became so afraid of what he might do, he went to the police station and asked to be locked up. He cried to the cops about how much he loved the woman he’d saved. “How screwed up was that?” Ron says. “Thinking that I loved this woman I never met.” The police calmed him and took him home. When he tells his family – or pretty much anybody – what he did in the rescue, they look at him funny and he can see them backing off like he’s weird or scary. Sixteen months after the incident Ron was awarded the Star of Courage, the country’s second highest bravery medal. He later met other bravery award recipients through the Australian Bravery Association, including Colin Brooks, and he was blown away by Colin’s story of the plane crash off Cairns. He thought the guy was a legend and couldn’t believe that Colin only got a Commendation for Brave Conduct. Telling his story in this crowd was so different to telling it to his family and friends. They didn’t look at him like a freak when he told them of his intention to die with a stranger. They understood.
He spent more than 500 bucks on a new suit for the investiture. “I knew I’d probably be on TV. I wanted to look respectable. I wanted people to think I was a decent bloke rather than turn up like a feral. It cost a fortune to go to Canberra. It was like I got nothing except a box of medals... I go to psychiatrists and all that costs money. But the most hurtful thing was that I haven’t got so much as a Christmas card from that woman. I haven’t got a phone call.”
He understands they’ve suffered worse than him. “When I think of the losses they’ve had, maybe she hates me. Maybe she wishes she did die. I can imagine all those things.”
Ron’s furniture business went bust but he is starting up a security business. He doesn’t drink or gamble any more. Almost a decade after the incident his life has emerged from the mire stronger and better.