Firefighter Merv Neil, severely injured in the fiery explosion at the Tamahere Icepak Coolstore, in 2008, is one of 31 people honoured with a New Zealand Bravery Award today.
His sight blurred by a 2000 km/h blast wave, his hair burned off and clumps of his smouldering skin hanging from his fingers, firefighter Merv Neil was a burned and bloodied mess.
But despite the burns to 71 per cent of his body, he carried on, thinking his mates were in a worse state, reported the NZ Herald.
The 51-year-old senior Hamilton firefighter, a veteran of 24 years, had planned to leave work early on April 5, 2008, to go to the Huntly stockcars.
But he and his colleagues on Red Watch got what they thought was a routine fire alarm call out to the Icepak coolstore at Tamahere.
The 4.03pm alarm was anything but routine. Shortly after they had checked the coolstore for a suspected gas leak, an enormous explosion ripped through it, hurtling its roof 30m into the air.
The blast wave shredded Mr Neil’s clothes and floored him and several of his mates with serious injuries.
Mr Neil was not wearing protective gear – he had been the driver of one of the two firetrucks that went to the scene.
When he got to his feet, his vision was blurred but he could see an orange wall of flame and a pillar of black smoke.
“I just looked up and went, ‘Holy shit’. It looked like Hiroshima or something.”
He turned first to Red Watch boss Derek Lovell, who bore the full force of the blast and was lying on the ground with critical injuries.
Mr Lovell, who was to have celebrated 25 years with the Fire Service a few months later, died that night.
“He just looked at me and said, ‘Make sure the guys are okay’.”
Mr Neil saw the skin hanging from his own fingers and felt his head, which had lost all of its hair, but did not realise that 71 per cent of his body was burned.
But he thought his mates had copped it worse, so he took charge of the situation, displaying the actions that have earned him a New Zealand Bravery Decoration in today’s Special Honours List.
“I went to Dennis [Wells] and Adrian [Brown]. They got up and were stunned and I saw they were moving so I said, ‘Get yourselves up and get over to the grass’.”
He was soon joined by an off-duty policeman who had been at Tamahere School’s Pumpkin Festival, about 100m from the coolstore.
“The roof had come down and landed on a fire engine and wedged itself against the next shed and we had two guys [Brian Halford and Alvan Walker] underneath it.
“They were face down and I said, ‘Just grab them and don’t try to roll them over.’
“He did that and then he said, ‘Mate, you are still on fire’ – my pants were still burning. He doused me down before I said I was okay and carried on.”
Within moments, several more people from the gala, many of them medical professionals, were at the scene. Some helped to move Mr Lovell and another injured firefighter, David Beanland.
But Mr Neil saw that the fire was being fed by a gas main that had sheared off and was spreading to another building.
“I watched the whole side of the wall melting and this golden river of cheese start pouring out.
“This whole wall was being eaten up … It was getting worse and I told one of the surgeons, ‘We have to move. The whole bloody thing could fall on top of us’.” Mr Neil cooled his mates’ burns with a fire hose, then showed others how to do it.
Only then did he listen to a paramedic who told him he needed treatment himself.
He was taken to Waikato Hospital and that night was put into a 10-week drug-induced coma.
His citation says his actions were “examples of exceptional bravery and professionalism of the highest order, and contributed substantially to the safety of members of the public and his own injured colleagues”.
But Mr Neil feels slightly embarrassed by the award and says he has grown to hate the word “hero”.
“You just do it. We go there and help people. It’s just something you do,” he says.
“Quite often we are first at the scene so we have to take charge and direct play to make things safe. It’s something that is built in. I don’t class it as any superhuman feat.”
Mr Neil spent one week short of six months in hospital and lost count of the number of skin grafts and operations he had.
He was initially told there was a chance he might lose a leg, but after two years of physio and hydrotherapy, he is fully fit.
“I started back at work on Christmas Day last year. I went back to my [original] crew with Brown Watch. I wanted to be a part of it.”