Disaster has brought this firefighting family closer together

From front left: Les McQueen, Darryl Aldridge, Irene Pachos, Luke Babula and the Station 397 crew
From front left: Les McQueen, Darryl Aldridge, Irene Pachos, Luke Babula and the Station 397 crew

It's nearing four months since the day that shook Station 397 to its core.

Every firefighter knows the risks before they willingly jump into that truck. But few ever come face-to-face with their worst nightmare.

While two Nambucca Heads retained firefighters - Darryl Aldridge and Irene Pachos - were hospitalised after a tree came crashing through their tanker on November 10, four were in the truck that day.

"It happened as much to them as it did to us," Darryl said.

Luke Babula and Les McQueen were in the front seats when the forest giant smashed through the cabin, bouncing the truck around violently, as if it was merely a child's toy. Neither of them can escape that memory.

Once they had done all they could for their injured colleagues, and the adrenaline had left their systems, both men cycled through a range of emotions, processing the trauma they had experienced.

"I was sad one day, then ok the next. The day after that I'd be angry," Les said.

"What happened made the danger in our jobs more real."

They also struggled though the feeling of 'survivor's guilt', spending hours beside Irene in her hospital beds down in John Hunter and then up in Coffs.

And it was obviously not smooth sailing for Irene or Darryl either.

"I went through anger, blame, frustration: 'Should we have done more? What could we have done better?'," Darryl said.

"And I've been dealing with the mental anguish of no longer being in hospital, but not being able to go back to normal life completely. I get frustrated at being treated with kid gloves."

Irene, prepped by past trauma, was fortified and felt a resounding gratitude at being alive.

She even forewent painkillers, instead practising mindfulness and positive thinking: "the brain is a powerful, powerful thing".

"But when I was in hospital I had other firefighting families I didn't know sending me flowers and letting me know they had my back. That made me really emotional. I found that really hard to accept, because I've always been a giver rather than a taker," she said.

"That's what makes a good firefighter," Darryl said.

And the shock of the near-death experience cast Irene's former existence in a different hue.

"I almost lost my life. I thought 'I'm 55, what do I want to do with my life?' and I decided to change things that no longer made me happy," she said.

She ended her relationship while still in hospital in Coffs Harbour.

Everyone thought I was crazy, they didn't know why I would want to rehab alone. But I'm not alone - I've got my firefighting family around me. The next person I go out with will have to accept my 11 surrogate brothers.

Irene Pachos, gesturing towards her crewmates.

In spite of - perhaps because of - the trauma of that day, the fraternity of Station 397 has been solidified.

"We're definitely a family - we might not always like each other, but we love each other," Captain Rob Couchman said.

The bonds have also been strengthened between sister stations in Macksville and Bowraville, who were there that day.

"I get messages all the time from the Macksville crew," Irene said.

The four in the truck that day were invited to attend Sunday's State Memorial Service which honoured the 25 people who were killed during this fire season.

"It was very moving and emotional," Darryl said.

"There was a guard of honour, and families lit candles for the six fallen firefighters. There were also six pairs of boots on stage," Irene said.

For Darryl's wife, Sue, the event was especially tough, emotionally.

"I think seeing the families of the firefighters who lost their lives really brought everything home to her. And seeing how Sue reacted to everything over the weekend really brought a tear to my eye," Darryl said.

But in many respects, it also brought a sense of closure for them.

The crew and I feel honoured and blessed to have been a part of such a special day that I will remember for a lifetime.

Irene Pachos

"And it was really nice to have been invited without having anything expected of us."

Physically, there's still a way to go for both Darryl and Irene.

Darryl is back at work at Busways, and incredibly grateful for the unending support they have shown him through his recovery.

But he still feels pain every day from the muscles that were torn from his vertebrae. And he doesn't feel strong enough yet to get back on a firetruck.

"I just don't feel like I'm in a position where I could fully support my crew," he said.

"But I really want to get back on the truck - I really want to do my job."

After nearly four months, Irene will finally get to say goodbye to her back brace on Monday - something she's both excited and nervous about.

"My core is weaker now after relying on the brace for so long. And I get down sometimes when there are things I struggle with now that I did without effort before - like stepping up onto a metre-high step at the sauna the other day," she said.

"I'm having to negotiate other ways of doing things.

"I've accepted that my recovery isn't going to happen overnight, but noone doubts that I'll be back. It's just a question of when. At the State Memorial Service, one of the Supers Greg Houston said to me 'I want you to know, we're here waiting for you to come back' - that meant a lot to me."

Both would like to extend their thanks to everyone in the community who has reached out to them in support. They'd also like to thank the Macksville and Bowraville crews who worked to get them out of the wreckage safely that day, and who have shown their love ever since.

Nambucca Heads Fire and Rescue are currently recruiting. They need men and women who work locally and can give daytime availability. If you think you have what it takes, call the station on 6568-6346 or you can contact them through their Facebook page.

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