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Scene of the fatal accident outside a supermarket in Whitiora on July 9 last year. PHOTO: NZ HERALD

It was 3.40am on a Sunday when a “beat shift” crew of four decided to do one more lap of Hamilton’s nightclubs before they called it a night.

Minutes later, with flames licking at their faces, they were trying to save two men in a burning car.

“A lot of times when you go to a fatal crash, you're there after the fact, not during the fact… It’s not often you get there and they’re still alive and screaming and it’s fully ablaze,” says Sergeant Chris Painter, who was the second supervisor on the scene six months ago.

His first thought on seeing the immediate aftermath of a car careening into the side of a truck outside a supermarket in Whitiora on July 9 was: “F… that’s a big fire.”

The timing – during a crossover of shifts including a car with an authorised officer doing a ride along – meant an “abundance of staff” were on hand within seconds, Chris says. “They just immediately went straight in. They were in that ‘we've got to save them’ mindset.”

Constable Ryan McKenzie and the others in his car were among those who swung straight into action.

“It was just all go. I got out, got my fire extinguisher out of the boot [but it] didn't work. I ran to the nearby BP and got their really big fire extinguisher and ran back to the car. I didn't really look to see if anyone was in there. I just assumed that anyone who was in it was dead [because it was] super mangled.” Ryan fought the blaze for 20 to 30 seconds before the extinguisher ran out.

Once the powder cleared, he was able to see the driver. “Initially I was like, ‘you're definitely dead’ – and then he moved. I yelled out to everyone that he was alive. Three others came over. I had cut the driver's seatbelt and we started to try pull him out but he was pretty stuck.”

It was then that Ryan heard the frontseat passenger make a noise. “So we pulled him out across the driver out the driver’s window, and we dragged him across the other side of the road to other officers… Then we ran back to the car to try to get the driver out again.”

Meanwhile, Chris says he was yelling at those closest to the fire to move back. “I could see the bigger picture [as the fire intensified]. I was screaming at them to get away. And they were just so focused that they had full audio exclusion and couldn't hear a thing from me.

“Heaps of staff were coming in and using fire extinguishers, and it would sort of quell the blaze a little bit for them to keep working… I think we went through about 15 extinguishers.”

Ryan and three colleagues fought frantically to wrench the driver’s door open as the flames grew bigger and bigger. “We got to the point where we couldn't get him out, the flames were too big. So we had to call it,” he says.

He was oblivious to the sergeant’s earlier pleas for them to back away. “[The whole rescue attempt] I heard nothing. All I remember is hearing [my colleague] say we’ve got to go. I can't remember anything else... It was all just a blur. I couldn't even tell you how hot the fire was even though it was licking up against my face. It didn't even register. It wasn't my concern at the time.”

Ryan and his colleagues’ efforts – later commended by Police as “heroic” – weren’t in vain. Fire and Emergency (FENZ) staff turned up soon after and were able to pull the driver out alive. The two 19-year-olds seated in the back of the car were not so lucky. They died in the crash.

The two survivors and the four officers who worked to save them were taken to hospital – the car’s occupants were both in a critical condition and the officers were treated for smoke inhalation.

Ryan says he didn’t even notice he was unwell. “But once the adrenaline wore off, maybe 10 minutes after the driver was pulled out by FENZ, the coughing, the sore throat and watery eyes, that’s when it registered.”

Chris says he was just thankful there wasn’t a different outcome for the police officers. “Speaking to [FENZ] afterwards, they were absolutely shocked no-one got burnt.”


In the aftermath

Ryan says he talked through the events of the night with his shift the next day. “It was good to talk about it because your family can only understand so much [about it] and why we do what we do. Whereas my section knows why we do it.”

Police later held a formal debrief, Chris says, where they discussed TENR and whether everyone used the threat-assessment process.

“A lot of them started to get a bit down on themselves. But it came out that, yes, they did use it, just not in the structured, formal way... they did, because eventually they decided on their own accord to back out. So that is using their TENR.”

Because it was deemed a critical incident, Chris says, some of the staff who attended the crash were referred to Police’s reintegration programme. “It [involved] going to the fire station, just talking through with the fire department things that could have gone wrong and things to look out for. Their words were, ‘We’re amazed you managed to achieve as much as you did with the little protection gear you’ve got’.”

Chris says if the same situation arose, he would like to see consistency in how staff were debriefed and that it happened quicker. “So you get ahead of the ball before all these things in their head start playing tricks on them, and they start rethinking it. You get it out first and tell them, ‘Listen, you did a perfect job. Don't worry. Don't think about the what ifs’.”

He says some staff are still grappling with what happened even months later. “I think the biggest thing that people are struggling to come to terms with is leaving [someone] in the car while it was still ablaze… One constable is still quite badly affected. They said, even now, they still dream about it, and can hear the screaming and the trauma. They have obviously seen the psychologists, but they said, ‘It's still there’.”

Ryan feels he has dealt with the incident. Speaking with a psychologist also helped, he says.

He admired everyone from Police who “just switched on” that morning. “It wasn’t just me. Everyone did what needed to be done. No-one had to be asked or told to do anything. If there were gaps in the cordons or first aid effort, other officers were straight there.

“We honestly just did what we would hope someone would do for our family members. We did our jobs.” – CARLA AMOS

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