Surviving against the odds

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The first anniversary of the Icepak Coolstores fire at Tamahere has brought heartening news of the incredible but steady recovery of the most badly injured of the seven surviving firefighters, Merv Neil.

Merv Neil has two full-time caregivers, tending to his burns, changing dressings and lathering him up with moisturiser. He has partial vision loss. He spends 23 hours out of every 24 encased in a compression suit.

But he’s alive, at home, and looking forward to firefighting duty, reports the Waikato Times.

Firefighter Merv Neil and wife Alice reflect on media coverage of this week's anniversary of the fire that left him badly burned
Firefighter Merv Neil and wife Alice reflect on media coverage of this week's anniversary of the fire that left him badly burned

His survival didn’t seem possible a year ago when he was engulfed by a ball of flame in the Icepak coolstore explosion at Tamahere, the paper reported in a story by Belinda Feek.

Mr Neil suffered near-death injuries in the blast, with burns to 71 per cent of his body.

He spent 10 weeks in a coma in Middlemore Hospital.

Burns cover both arms and legs, all of his back, bottom and right side of his head.

He’s lost partial sight in his right eye and has nerve damage in his feet.

But it’s the sight that bugs him the most.

“It’s virtually like being pissed all the time. Everything’s all fuzzy, but the surgeon is confident it will come right.”

His recall of the events of April 5 last year, when he and his Hamilton firefighting colleagues were answering the coolstore callout, is extraordinary.

He spoke exclusively to the Waikato Times at Hamilton Central Fire Station this week where a plaque was unveiled for Senior Station Officer Derek Lovell, who died in the blast.

Six other firefighters were also injured.

Merv Neil said: “I was just about to step out of the door (to the coolstore) … and (the force of explosion) just came around and kicked me in the arse.”

He knew he had been burnt.

“It just felt like heavy, heavy sunburn. I looked down at my hands and the skin was hanging off so I knew I couldn’t do too much physical help, like dragging anyone.”

He could see firefighters Alvan Walker and Brian Halford trapped in the rubble.

Unable to use his hands, he got a rescuer to drag them out.

He was also instrumental in moving the rescuers – doctors and nurses who had been attending the pumpkin festival at neighbouring Tamahere School – back, as he knew another explosion was imminent.

At home his wife Alice was preparing for a holiday flight to Australia when she received the dreaded phone call.

“I could hear him on the phone (in the background) saying `I’m okay, I’m okay’.”

When she arrived at Waikato Hospital, Merv was still saying he was all right.

But the doctors weren’t.

“The doctor had to say quite firmly (to me), ‘you need to say goodbye to him, he will succumb to his burns because they are just too much’.

“They told her no one could survive such burns.”

Merv, who was laying there moving his arms and limbs around, said to me ‘you know me, I’ll be fine’.”

Those were the last words they shared for over two months as he spent the next 10 weeks in a coma at Middlemore Hospital.

She immediately started recording daily events; writing and taking pictures.

“Sometimes people would think we were a bit macabre, but we knew when he came out he would want to know everything.”

Merv spent 12 weeks in Middlemore and was transferred to Waikato Hospital.

He was discharged from there in September and began walking in December.

He can’t speak highly enough of hospital staff, especially those in Ward 7 where he stayed.

“Waikato Hospital, Ward 7, were just absolutely the bees knees.”

In between twice-weekly hospital and hydrotherapy pool sessions, he enjoys fishing and “the petrol head stuff”, attending car racing events – including looking forward to this year’s Hamilton 400 after missing out last year.

He’s also giving something back to Waikato Hospital by mentoring new burns victims.

But for all that he did for his mates on the afternoon of Saturday, April 5, 2008, don’t go calling the man a hero.

“I’m not a hero,” he says defiantly.

“The heroes are the ones who came and rescued us. The parents that had to leave their kids from the gala day (at neighbouring Tamahere School). They were here straight away, those doctors and nurses, it was just unbelievable.”

Alice said her husband’s survival has meant he’s been there for a special time in the couple’s life; the birth of their first grandchild, Mia, who arrived on New Year’s Eve which also coincided with their 30th wedding anniversary.

And Merv hopes to be back at work by the end of the year.

“It’s like some truck drivers who have diesel in their veins – as far as I’m concerned I’m there till I retire, or until I’m no good to do the role.”

(Waikato Times photo by Donna Walsh)

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