31 years in the Ngaruawahia volunteer fire brigade

AIMIE CRONIN
Last updated 13:30 04/02/2014
 Doug Vowles
PETER DRURY/Fairfax NZ

A lifetime of restless nights: Former chief Doug Vowles.

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Doug Vowles gave his life to the Ngaruawahia volunteer fire brigade. Aimie Cronin takes his words and lets them wash through her like the memory of a siren. 

At night, the wind carries calls for help and pulls me from sleep.

The alarm rings from base on Herschel Street and when sound arrives up to my place on Waingaro Road, suuure as hell, I'll be reaching for the light. I can't help it. I wake like it's part of sleep.

I wake ready. I wake like this because of all those nights I've had to rise to the call there's panic close by.

It's been a life divided in two - the quiet night and the night disquiet - and now, the habits of 31 years have me sitting up in bed, checkin' the time, jotting it down. Oh, I knows there's not much point to the ritual, but it's automatic now, y'see, it's just what this old man does.

In the old days, we put a board up in the station so that when the alarm rang out it triggered batteries and set bells off in every volunteer's household. That bell would getchu going, kid, even the dead would stir, and you had to get up and turn it off and away you'd go, giddyup boys! Now they have these little . . . things . . . in their pockets.

The commissioner wanted to get rid of the Herschel Street siren because it costs money for power, but I said NO BLOODY WAY are you getting rid of it. Not till you've proved to me that those pagers are guaranteed. Until then, it stays where it bloody well is.

I joined the service in 1958 and for the longest time it was about 12 calls a year, mostly gorse fires and chimneys. There were buggar all motor accidents. Sometimes we'd get calls at two in the morning about smoke going across the highway from the ol' dump on the main street. Down we'd go. The rats were bigger than cats in there. In those days, we never had gloves, we never had proper gear, we fixed what we broke and we jumped in where we could. I remember the road accidents started to pick up after the crash in 1969.

There were a spate of them after, but that was a bad one, that one, probably the worst I've seen.

Well I'd just knocked off work to go to a funeral when some of the boys run over to say a bus has gone over the bank with so many women on it. It was about half past one in the afternoon. They come from Auckland, and were headed to Waingaro springs because one of ladies was havin her 90th birthday. Driver come to the corner and he got too far to the edge and rolled the bus down a six metre bank. It wasn't very nice, I can tell you that, it was the first time I'd ever seen anyone dead in me life. Anyway, so I got stretchers and ropes down through the gorse and we had to help pull the stretchers back up. It took four of us gettin' it up the hill. Six trips we did. Six of them dead. One woman was under the bus. The next day I could hardly walk, I was using muscles in me legs I never knew I had, but you don't think about that at the time, you just do. The boys were climbing up a ladder through the embankments to get the live ones to safety and a joker named Jack Kelly from town, well, he had a ute and he was taking women through to the hospital, along with six or eight ambulances. Flat stick. And then the army comes in with a big crane to try ta lift the bus up a bit because the driver was trapped in the steering wheel and had ta be cut out. He survived that day, but he died about 18 months later of shock related to the crash, or so they say.

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So we get the bodies up and we get them all away and we get back to base and a'course the shock hits me and what else can you do? - it was come on boys, we're going to the pub for a couple a glasses a beer to fix us up. They did well, the boys. Few a them suffered from nightmares years later, of tryin to get the women out, bodies cut up, crushed chests, people dying in yer arms. Me, I've never had nightmares, not yet, but that night I got home at 10 o'clock an' me wife said, Are you alright, would you like a feed? And I said, No I'm alright, love, and then I broke down. It's emotional to think of it now. But we did a good job getting them out using the best of our knowledge. Buses these days have good escape exits and all sorts, but in those days we never had a thing.

All you do is do the best you can. If the person is partially alive, you try and get a name out of them to find out who they are so you can help them, let the services and the family know. Keep talking to them, keep the mind going, say: what's your name, or where're you from? Say, you'll be alright, even if they won't. You don't ever tell them they won't.

You do the job to the best of yer ability and you hope to god it's not your own family that you arrive to find at the scene. You tell yer kids to be careful on their bikes. You clean the mess up from the road because you don't want cars driving over someone's remains, and as yer mopping it up someone stops and he says, How can you do it, Doug? and I say, Well, someone's got to.

I gave the service 30 odd years, but I also gave it my life. The wife used ta say ta me, You spend so much time down at the station you might as well take your blankets and sleep there. But she didn't mind it too much. When the bell rang at night, she'd hop up too and have my boots ready for me. But she had plentya rows with Hamilton Central because they'd call up all the time and she'd say, My husband works till 5 o'clock. You ring him here after that and he'll help you as much as he can.

She's been in a home down Hamilton ways for going on five years. Me daughter and I go over every-week-never-miss and I always take a big feed of fruit and stuff and she eats the whole lot and she says to me, How old are all the children now? and I say, Oh they're all married, love, and she says, No they're not, they're still going to school. And when I've gone, she doesn't know I've been there.

The nights are broken up with that old siren, that call to duty, and the days I spend doin, oh this and that. I've got that much history on the fire service I've been meaning ta write a book. The bowling club, the history club, the swimming club, a couple a beers down at Herschel Street on a Friday night with the fire boys and I've never missed an AGM meeting. The legs don't do what they used to. I had a knee go bung years ago and the doctor said You'll walk again, but I gave it away and in the end I chucked in bein chief and handed it over to a younger fella. That was 1988. In November that year, I gotta Queen's Service Medal, one of the highest honours a volunteer fighter can receive. But you don't do these things for the medals, you do them because you're helping somebody and saving lives. Down at the station, up on the board, you'll see the letters next to my name. Doug Vowles, Q.S.M. I'm the only one, the only one.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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