'I've been to hell and back'
Engulfed in flames with crippling burns to more than 70 per cent of his body, Merv Neil quietly led those in danger away to safety.
The firefighter, one of eight severely injured in a fiery explosion at the Tamahere Icepak Coolstore, Waikato, in 2008, is one of 31 heroes honoured with a New Zealand Bravery Award today.
But praise does not come easily to Mr Neil, who battled life-threatening injuries which would leave him in a 10-week coma, to lead colleagues to safety. "It made me feel a bit stink, when there's guys [in Christchurch] in their jandals and bare hands and chucking rubble and stuff around, and I think, 'Oh God, what have I done'."
The Napier siege, the Mangatepopo Gorge tragedy, the Tamahere fire – all are indelibly marked on the nation's psyche.
Those and other incidents stretching back to 2007 are recalled as emergency service workers and ordinary citizens who put their lives in danger to save others are recognised. Many paid the price with physical and emotional injuries, and three paid with their lives.
Auckland man Austin Hemmings made a life-ending decision, as he left work for the day, to go to the aid of a woman pleading for help, as she was confronted by a man. Intervening in the situation gave the woman time to flee – and could well have saved her life – while he faced the attacker alone.
Sixteen-year-old Elim Christian College pupil Anthony Mulder, the youngest to be recognised this year, left a heroic legacy in his short life, after he and six others died in the 2008 Mangatepopo Gorge canyoning tragedy.
Anthony and teacher Tony McClean, who also died, have both been recognised for sacrificing their own chances by tying themselves to weaker swimmers, as they tried to cross the fast-moving swollen river. Their bodies were discovered at the bottom of a dam, still attached to their buddies.
Out of the Napier siege, 14 people have emerged as heroes, including resident Leonard Holmwood who put his body on the line to stop Jan Molenaar firing more shots at wounded police officers.
The situations in which the acts were performed include car crashes, natural disasters and human violence – but the common denominator is courage.
And for many, like Mr Neil, that courage remains. The senior firefighter amazed medical staff by his recovery, which allowed him to return to work in December.
The New Zealand Bravery Awards have a four-tier system, recognising the different levels of bravery displayed:
The New Zealand Cross: For acts of great bravery in situations of extreme danger.
The New Zealand Bravery Star: For acts of outstanding bravery in situations of danger.
The New Zealand Bravery Decoration: For acts of exceptional bravery in situations of danger.
The New Zealand Bravery Medal: For acts of bravery.
In today's awards there are eight New Zealand Bravery Stars, seven New Zealand Bravery Decorations, 13 New Zealand Bravery Medals, and two honorary New Zealand Bravery Medals.
One person has been made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
THE FULL LIST
NEW ZEALAND BRAVERY STAR (NZBS)
* Michael John Burne, Constable, New Zealand Police: One of the first armed offenders squad (AOS) members to arrive at Chaucer Road in Napier, after gunman Jan Molenaar opened fire on May 7 2009.
"Constable Burne showed outstanding bravery, not only in making the decision to enter the immediate area outside 41 Chaucer Road on 7 May, 2009, at a very early stage in the incident, knowing at least one police officer had been shot and that shots were continuing to be fired by the offender, but also in remaining there after finding a colleague shot dead and a civilian wounded."
* Austin Bernard Hemmings (posthumous), Auckland: Fatally stabbed when he went to the aid of Diane Nonu, whose former boyfriend was treating her a threatening and aggressive manner. "He deliberately put himself in danger and continued to protect Ms Nonu until he believed she had reached a place of safety. This outstandingly brave decision ultimately cost him his life."
* Leonard Rex Holmwood, Napier: Shot by Napier gunman Jan Molenaar after he grabbed his rifle of Jan Molenaar, tried to dissuade him from firing it, and turned it away from its intended targets.
"Mr Holmwood's outstandingly brave actions prevented Mr Molenaar from firing further shots at the wounded police officers, giving them valuable time in which to seek cover and relative safety. In doing so he sustained potentially life-threatening injuries. Even when wounded, he attempted to provide assistance to another wounded police officer who lay nearby."
* Dennis Michael Hurworth, Senior Constable, New Zealand Police: One of the first AOS members to arrive at Chaucer Road in Napier, after gunman Molenaar opened fire.
"Senior Constable Hurworth showed outstanding bravery, not only in making the decision to enter the immediate area outside 41 Chaucer Road on 7 May, 2009, at a very early stage in the incident, knowing at least one police officer had been shot and that shots were continuing to be fired by the offender, but also in remaining there after finding a colleague shot dead and a civilian wounded."
* Anthony McClean (posthumous), Auckland: Elim Christian College teacher who gave his life trying to save a group of 10 students trapped by rising flood waters in Mangatepopo Gorge, attaching himself to a weaker swimmer even though he stood a better chance of survival on his own.
* Anthony Walter Mulder (posthumous), Auckland. Elim Christian College student who drowned in Mangatepopo Gorge, after trying to save weak swimmer Floyd Fernandes by pairing with him and leaping into rising floodwaters.
"Both Anthony Mulder and Tony McClean were competent swimmers and would have stood a much better chance of survival if they had attempted the stream on their own, even though they had no experience of the water conditions in which they found themselves.
"They also knew that their friends would have little chance of survival in such conditions without assistance but if they were tied together their own chances of survival would be significantly reduced. Nevertheless, they did not hesitate in agreeing to this part of the plan and, in acts of outstanding bravery, selflessly accompanied their friends into the torrent.
* Timothy Nigel Smith, New Zealand Police: One of the first police officers to arrive at the scene of the fatal shooting in Napier of Senior Constable Len Snee, and the wounding of Len Holmwood, and senior constables Grant Diver and Bruce Miller, by Molenaar.
"Played a prominent role in the recovery of two seriously wounded police officers. Though unarmed, he displayed coolness, initiative and exceptional bravery in effecting the rescue of Senior Constable Miller under fire from the gunman.
He put his life in danger again only a short time later when he joined the team that successfully rescued Senior Constable Diver."
* Paul Anthony Symonds, Senior Constable, New Zealand Police: Among the first AOS officers to arrive in the vicinity of Chaucer Road when Molenaar opened fired.
"He operated in an area of challenging terrain on a search and rescue mission for those shot by the offender knowing that Molenaar was volatile and not knowing his exact location. He knew that his life was in significant danger, despite being equipped with ballistic armour, as Molenaar was using high calibre semi-automatic firearms at close range."
THE NEW ZEALAND BRAVERY DECORATION (NZBD)
* Heath Courtenay Jones, Sergeant, New Zealand Police: For actions during the Napier siege.
* Anthony James Miller, Senior Sergeant, New Zealand Police: For bravery during the Napier siege.
* Anthony Frederick Ronald Millsom, Wing Commander, Royal New Zealand Air Force (retired): Burned and risked death trying to save the occupants of a crashed aircraft at Whenuapai.
* James Alexander Muir, Constable, New Zealand Police: For pursuing a stolen car in the Bay of Plenty, while being shot at by its occupants.
* Mervyn Raymond Neil, senior firefighter, New Zealand Fire Service: Grievously injured, he took charge of the situation after the Tamahere coolstore explosion near Hamilton, leading people away from the danger area.
* Michael Ross O'Leary, Inspector, New Zealand Police: Pulled a two-year-old boy from a burning car after a crash near Taupo in 2009, then went back to rescue a second child, suffering burns himself.
* Kevin Lawrence Rooney, Constable, New Zealand Police: for bravery during the Napier siege.
NEW ZEALAND BRAVERY MEDAL (NZBM)
* Peter Winston Booth, Taupo: Helped save children from a burning car in 2009, despite danger to himself.
* Paul Buckley, Detective, New Zealand Police: One of the first members of the AOS to arrive at the Napier siege.
* James Iain Christie: Went to the rescue of his badly hurt climbing partner, William Pike after they were buried by an eruption on Mt Ruapehu on September 25 2007.
* Bradley James Clark, Senior Constable, New Zealand Police: One of the first AOS members to arrive at the scene of the fatal shooting of Senior Constable Len Snee in Napier.
* Nicholas John Clere, Detective Sergeant, New Zealand Police: For bravery during the Napier siege.
* Nicolas Warren Corley, Constable, New Zealand Police: Pulled a trapped driver from the wreckage of a burning car at the risk of his own life, saving his life.
* Grant Wayne Exeter, Dannevirke: Entered a flooded river at risk to his own life to save the driver of a trapped car.
* Donald Garry Fraser, Napier: Went to the aid of a wounded police officer in the Napier siege at risk to his own life.
* Peter Alexander Hanne, Turangi: Disregarded his own safety in helping the trapped driver of a truck.
* Christine Margaret Jackman, Napier: Went to the aid of a wounded police officer in the Napier siege at risk to her own life.
* Conor Liam O'Leary: Helped his father rescue two children trapped in a burning car near Taupo.
* Stephen James Smith, advanced paramedic, St John Ambulance Service: Put himself in harm's way during the Napier siege to ensure urgently needed medical attention reached a seriously wounded police officer at the earliest possible moment.
* Mark Taylor, Chief Petty Officer, Royal New Zealand Navy: Tried to rescue a crew member from the sea to the * point of exhaustion, where his own life could have been at risk.
NEW ZEALAND BRAVERY MEDAL
* Maurice Ugo Conti and Sophie Conti, Muir Beach, California, United States: Showed courage, determination and seamanship to rescue the New Zealand crew of a stranded yacht.
- With NZPA
The Dominion Post