Incredible story of family’s rescue from certain death
A fortnight after two volunteer firefighters pulled Troy Pauling's family from a flaming house, the badly burned dad staggered to his feet and threw his bandaged arms around the heroes.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you," he sobbed. "I'm so sorry for what you lost."
Mr Pauling's partner Jessica Gravener and their youngest daughter, Kesha, 7, rushed forward to hug the fireys inside the Narooma hotel room the family now calls home.
The last time the family saw the firefighters the kids asked: "Are we going to die?" Nathan Barnden and John Gallagher couldn't answer.
The family's survival story began in the days before New Year's Eve with the Paulings preparing their home, outside Cobargo, for a bushfire that was burning steadily through the nearby national park.
Tanks and pumps were at the ready, the grass was mowed down to dirt, even the spa was full of water.
But, with the hills above the home glowing red at sundown, Mr Pauling told his family to go to his parent's home at nearby Quaama.
He stayed to defend his home along with his father and best mate.
"I could see the fire coming," Mr Pauling said, thinking back to the early hours of New Year's Eve.
"We just stood there in wet clothes with rags on our heads. Then it came roaring - it was like someone was throwing fireballs at us."
Mr Pauling, an animal lover, broke down in tears describing seeing his chickens burst into flames.
"I started burning," he said. "I was yelling for the others to get my dog but it was too late."
He watched in helpless horror as his dog Diesel burned in front of him.
Mr Pauling, "in absolute agony", called out to his friend and the pair jumped into the spa as his father sheltered inside the home from the heat.
"We were drowning ourselves," he said, distraught.
"Dad was screaming but we just had to wait while it got hotter and hotter."
The men fled as the house came down and Mr Pauling collapsed. His burned dog staggered over and laid next to him while his father and mate poured water on them.
WAITING TO DIE
In one of his final calls to Ms Gravener, who was sheltering at his parents' home, he said: "I love you, I wanted to be cremated at the house anyway."
At the same time, a few kilometres away, 26-year-old volunteer firey Nathan Barnden was on the radio in Bega RFS' spare vehicle - an old Hyundai Terracan.
As a divisional commander his job was to direct the RFS trucks and other emergency services who were the only line of defence between the town of Quaama and the fire.
"This fire blew everything I'd ever seen in 10 years away," he said.
"It took us by surprise and off guard. The sheer intensity and the heat - it was 38C at 3am."
Mr Barnden watched the "incredible, terrifying" flames overrun his own father's brigade as they tried to save Nardy House, a disability service in the tiny village.
He ran toward his father - fearing the worst - but found him alive. They hugged, told each other "I love you" and the young commander got back on the radio.
"What happened at Nardy House made me think if that fire hits the town it will kill people," he said. "We had to very quickly change strategy."
The new strategy was simple - save lives.
Mr Barnden bundled residents into the RFS shed and tried to defend it. He sent his remaining crews to save people in danger.
Six more calls came through for people trapped by fire - among them was Ms Gravener and the children who were stuck in Mr Pauling's parents' home.
"I looked around and realised I had nothing left," Mr Barnden said.
He turned to Mr Gallagher.
Without hesitation the experienced firey got into the rattly Hyundai and the pair shot toward Quaama.
The roads to the home were narrow, dirt, the fire was on both sides and embers and furnace-like winds buffeted the car. The check engine light came on as the car's temperature gauge red-lined.
"There have been a few times in my life I've been scared I won't come home, but this was the scariest 30 minutes of my career in the RFS and my life," Mr Barnden said.
They powered through the fire to find the home on Whitby Wilson Rd already alight.
"For a split second, running up to that house, you wonder if everyone is going to survive," Mr Gallagher said. "Am I about to see a house full of people who didn't make it?"
But looking down the hallway he saw the family. They had doused themselves in water and were hiding under a blanket as Ms Gravener tried to fan away smoke from the choking children.
"I heard a voice, I thought I was losing it, I thought we were gone," she said.
"But I heard it again and turned to see John at the door. I just said 'we're out of here'."
Mr Gallagher pulled the barefoot kids, their mother and grandmother through the door as flames began licking at the front veranda.
All seven and Mr Gallagher leapt into the car and Mr Barnden reversed out.
"Normally when we do this (it's) in a truck with water, curtains, protection sprays. We had nothing," Mr Barnden said. He told them to stay low, warning them "it was going to get a bit hot".
"The kids are screaming. They're asking if we're going to die. You just don't have an answer," Mr Barnden said.
After what felt like a lifetime they got the family back to the RFS station.
The darkest moment for Mr Barnden came with a phone call - his uncle and cousin, Robert and Patrick Salway, had perished in the fire outside town.
He was devastated but reminded himself he "had a job to do".
The pair pulled 13 people from harm's way, including a severely burned woman.
Back at Mr Pauling's home his father and mate helped the badly injured dad stagger from the property. It would take almost 7km of walking and multiple attempts to flag down emergency services for him to get help. He was rushed to Sydney's North Shore Hospital's intensive-care unit and given skin grafts.
After the fire swept through, Mr Barnden, exhausted after his 30-hour shift, was told his grandmother was now close to death as well.
"I got my dad and we drove straight to the nursing home to see Mum, who had just lost her brother and nephew, and was at the deathbed of her mother," he said. "We hugged her and cried and told her it will be OK - even though it wasn't."
This week Mr Barnden has three funerals and interviews with police investigating the fatal blaze.
"None of us who were there will recognise what we saved, you just can't look past what we've lost," he said. "But I don't want any other family to go through what mine has. Getting into that car was the right thing to do."