CODE 2, VOL 33, NO 2 : 21 january 2019
25th Anniversary – Southport Honda
In memory of Sub-Station Officer Herbie Fennell and Firefighter Noel Watson
This 11th of February 2019 will mark the 25th anniversary of the fire at Southport Honda where Sub-Station Officer Herbie Fennell and Firefighter Noel Watson were killed in the line of duty.
While every year we pause to remember our comrades and the families and friends they left behind, every five years a formal service has been held. A memorial service will be held on the 11th of February in the Cascade Gardens next to Surfers Paradise Fire Station, where there is a memorial stone and picnic area dedicated to their sacrifice.
I believe this is also an opportune time to lay to rest some lingering misconceptions about what happened in the early hours of that morning. Even after 25 years, there are some within the fire service who believe that the fallen men just got ‘lost’. This probably stems from a Gold Coast Bulletin headline very early in the piece, printed after a suggestion was made by fire service persons unknown, that Herbie and Noel must have got disoriented and couldn’t find their way out of the building.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The men were overwhelmed by a violent and abnormal fire condition, similar to a flashover, were badly injured and almost certainly lost consciousness. The medical and scene evidence is unequivocal. There also seems to have been a misapprehension that for some time no one knew they were missing. This is also not true. The IC at the time, Sub-Station Officer Bryan Turner, now sadly passed away, knew that they were missing, had relayed this to other firefighters and the senior officer in attendance, and nearly lost his own life in a desperate effort to find them at their last known position.
The first attending crews were confronted by a deep seated fire, in a building with an unusual split level layout, a very high fuel load and difficult access due to tight security. It was a hot and humid night which held down the dense black smoke that came from within the premises.
Gaining access was troublesome and the fire in the below ground tyre storage area grew in intensity before any water could be applied.
Some time later, after gaining access in various parts of the building and having working jets on the fire, part of the floor collapsed just in front of where Herbie and Noel were working their 64mm jet down an internal set of stairs. An intermittent but high heat load was rising up the stairs from the tyre storage below. Just previous to this, Bryan Turner had made contact with Herbie, who told him he would be out in five minutes.
Two firefighters were sent to relieve Herbie and Noel. They found their branch, open in a spray pattern, but not the crew. They reported this to Bryan Turner who made entry with a firefighter and couldn’t find the men on the end of their branch. Bryan then informed the senior officer. The natural assumption was that they had fallen through the collapse and desperate searches concentrated in the area below. Then Turner and a firefighter made another entry to their last known position, did a sweep search of the area, couldn’t locate them and made to exit.
Due to a particular design element of the internal stairwell, the firefighter just in front of Bryan Turner was completely shielded and unaware of another significant fire event that came from below and over the top of Bryan, which sent him to the floor for protection. Lying on his back, using the branch to cover himself from the fire, he was pulled from danger by two firefighters who heard his call for help. Video footage shows his turnout coat steaming from the heat load, as, outside, he relayed to the senior officer on scene that he could not locate the men. Bryan was then taken to Intensive Care.
Due to the fire condition that overwhelmed them, Herbie and Noel had been flung violently across the room. Noel crashed through a glass parts cabinet, dislodging his BA face mask, suffering further injuries and was knocked unconscious. Herbie, who had taken most of the heat blast, came to a wall where he crawled away and then lost consciousness behind some cabinets and out of sight. Both men were found lying on their DSU’s which muffled the distress sound.
A final search of the spare parts area located their position and video footage reminds us of their workmates attempts to revive them on the way to waiting ambulances.
It must be remembered here, that at that time portable radios were not issued to all crew members. They were hand-held only as there was no radio pocket to secure them. Their turnout coats were made of wool, offering little thermal protection and must have been water soaked, evident from the steam burns they suffered.
So, Herbie Fennell and Noel Watson did not just get ‘lost’.
And it is clear from evidence presented to the Coronial Inquest that the Incident Commander and other crew members knew they were missing.
Compounding the myth was a fire service administration and Government of the time, determined to dampen criticism and absolve themselves of responsibility. Instead of supporting their firefighters they chose to vilify an experienced senior officer, highly competent and motivated junior officers and a skilled crew of firefighters doing their duty.
Then, a year later, the unnecessarily aggressive and derogatory line of questioning taken by the Government/QFS legal team at the Coronial Inquest was a disgraceful attempt at deflecting blame and was rightly curtailed after objection by the UFU team to the Coroner. However, the tone of the QFS and Government was thus set for the rest of the hearing.
To suggest that Herbie and Noel just got ‘lost’ is a hurtful smear on their memory.
To suggest no one knew they were missing is a blatant distortion of the facts.
Herbie and Noel, your memory will forever live on with your fellow firefighters.
John Oliver - General Secretary
Authorised by John Oliver General Secretary
United Firefighters' Union of Australia, Union of Employees QLD