EXCLUSIVE

These two local heroes are putting the 'fighter' in firefighter

Irene Pachos and Darryl Aldridge

Irene Pachos and Darryl Aldridge

They call them 'widow makers'; trees whose internal structure has become compromised from the ravages of a bushfire. On a still, silent day, long after fire has passed through, a huge branch or the whole tree can suddenly drop, without warning.

Over the weekend, after the fire front had decimated large swathes of South Arm, Yarranbella and Taylors Arm, you could almost set your clock by the incessant regularity of the forest giants' sickening thuds into the parched earth.

This is the environment our emergency services men and women have been operating in.

They understand the risks, but duty propels them forward.

Even after two of our bravest had a near-death encounter with one of these arboreal nightmares on Sunday afternoon, both are itching to don their turnouts once more.

Irene Pachos and Darryl Aldridge are both retained firefighters for Station 397; Nambucca Heads Fire and Rescue. And because firefighting is in his blood, Darryl also volunteers with the Valla RFS brigade.

On Sunday afternoon the wind had flared up and the unit, along with Station 371 (Macksville), had been tasked to help with property protection.

With the aid of some waterbombing choppers, the two units completed their mission successfully. Irene and Darryl snapped a joyful selfie together to send to Darryl's wife before jumping back in the truck, ready for their next task.

JOB WELL DONE: With the house secured, the crew were ready to be retasked

JOB WELL DONE: With the house secured, the crew were ready to be retasked

It wasn't long before the lead truck in the convoy braked. Fallen trees had blocked their path while they were out saving the house.

Irene and Darryl, who were in the rear of the second truck, were in the process of getting out to help when an almighty crash shattered their reality.

That's really as much as Darryl remembers.

Irene recollects a little more.

"I remember a really big crash and a thump and suddenly being on the ground. My head had landed on a log. One of the other firefighters came over and held my hand," she said.

Her crew mates kept a conversation going to make sure she stayed awake while help was being called.

I knew I'd done a spinal injury because the pain was excruciating. But all I kept wondering was if Darryl was alright.

The pair had swapped seats - she remembers remarking that she'd nicked Darryl's spot in the cab. But this seemingly trivial act is probably the reason Darryl is still alive today to tell his side of the tale.

The 12 tonne tree landed squarely on the side Irene was sitting and, having already taken off her seat belt, had catapulted her out of the truck. Irene landed less than a metre from a very steep embankment.

A photo of Darryl Irene took on the day of the accident. If he had have been sitting in this spot when the tree hit, he likely wouldn't be alive today.

A photo of Darryl Irene took on the day of the accident. If he had have been sitting in this spot when the tree hit, he likely wouldn't be alive today.

"Being a slow old fella, I probably would have got smacked," Darryl said.

"It's funny you don't know why you do things when you're there, but then you realise later."

Darryl needed to be cut from the wreckage by the Station 235 (Bowraville) crew who were first responders to the scene.

Then paramedics secured a spinal board underneath him and whisked him off to Coffs Harbour.

"It's normally us assisting others, so that was bizarre in itself. But they were all fantastic. It was a good rescue," Darryl said.

"I don't think anything was done wrong that day." - Irene. "It was really just an unlucky situation." - Darryl

"I don't think anything was done wrong that day." - Irene. "It was really just an unlucky situation." - Darryl

The force of the blow broke some of Darryl's ribs, and damaged ligaments. He sustained injuries to his back, neck, and a haematoma to the head.

"I always tell people I've got a head for radio, now I definitely do," he said wryly.

Irene's injuries are a little more severe. She needed to be airlifted from the Bowraville oval to John Hunter for treatment.

She's being treated for a fractured spine, damaged ligaments in her neck, an injured shoulder and a "slight head injury".

"I'm in a lot of pain but I'm getting there. I got out of bed for the first time since the accident yesterday. And today I pushed myself to do 50 metres.

"I've got to wear a brace for three months in the hopes it will knit the spine.

"But I'm lucky - it could have been a lot worse. And I'm so grateful - the trauma team here in Newcastle has been faultless, and the support I've received from Fire and Rescue has been phenomenal."

Irene was paid a visit by the Fire and Rescue Commissioner yesterday and says "the flowers just haven't stopped".

"We're really feeling the community spirit and love," she said.

She's thankful, too, for the support of her partner, family and close friends who have dropped everything to be with her.

Darryl, too, has been overwhelmed by the support of those around him.

"Everyone's looking after us, and my work colleagues [from Busways] keep checking in with me and offering their help," he said. "They keep saying 'whenever you're ready to come back, then you're ready to come back'.

"And I want to give credit to my wife [Sue] and my family members for letting me go and do this stuff.

I don't have a lot of money, but I have time and skills - that's what I can give to assist.

Darryl said he's hoping to be "up and running in about six to eight weeks".

"I'm just waiting to get back on the truck now. I feel guilty about sitting here doing nothing."

Irene is heading home to Coffs Harbour on Monday to start rehabilitation. But she, too, has a similar desire.

"I know it's a long road, but my goal is to get back on that truck," she said.

She still has flashbacks to the accident, but she said she's getting through by focussing on the positives.

"A lot happened that day, yes, but one good thing was, the house wasn't harmed and the bond between sister stations 371 and 397 is strong and united."

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