GOOD NEIGHBOURS: Coel Ibbertson on the veranda of their Emu Park home with mother Lee Ibbertson, grandmother Mary Temple and seven-year-old Alexandra Ibbertson.
GOOD NEIGHBOURS: Coel Ibbertson on the veranda of their Emu Park home with mother Lee Ibbertson, grandmother Mary Temple and seven-year-old Alexandra Ibbertson. Mike Knowling

Governor presents Emu Park fire hero with bravery medal

From The Capricorn Coast Mirror


FIRE is not a topic Coel Ibbertson warms to, except to warn of its dangers to anyone who'll listen.

"I'm just very respectful of it," he said. "It's completely indiscriminate."

And the thick, black smoke through which Coel fought to rescue two adults and three children from their burning home is not a happy memory either.

Late last month, Coel, of Emu Park, was commended for bravery by Queensland Governor Penelope Wensley, for saving a family of five from the fire on New Year's Day 2012, that devastated their house in minutes.

"I listen to the citations, listen to the details of their actions and stand in amazement at their bravery," the Governor said as she presented him with his Australian Bravery Medal at Government House, Brisbane.

Not a man to seek the spotlight, New Zealand-born Coel admitted to being "pretty honoured and thrilled" by the award.

But he speaks now about the events of that day only because it may serve to warn others of the dangers posed by fire.

It was about 10pm on January 1, 2012, when Coel adjourned from watching a movie in the lounge room of his own family's home in Pattinson St, Emu Park, to the veranda for a cigarette.

He had been visiting from Mackay, where he was working as a machinery operator in the mines.

Coel straight away noticed a smoky smell and sounds of crackling. "Out of the corner of my eye, I saw an orange glow," he said.

The old, two-storey, timber Queenslander next door was well alight and he knew the family - two adults called Julie and Carl and three children called Finn, Campbell and Jade - was home because he had seen them earlier in the day.

In that instant, he said, action replaced thought. "I don't remember thinking about a thing," he said. "All the thought came afterwards."

He grabbed a mobile phone and threw it to his mum, telling her to "call the firies". He then leapt over the veranda and ran to locked front door. He knew there was a window next to the door, which was open, and jumped through.

While flames were raging, it's the "thick, black, rolling smoke" he remembers most - and having to duck under it to see anything.

Knowing the house, he knew where the people would be but his attempts to rouse them from sleep failed.

As the house began to disintegrate, he found the first child, woke him then hurried amid smoke, flames and debris to the next bedroom and woke his brother, then found the third child cowering, hands over her head, behind the door of her bedroom. Somehow, they made their way to the kitchen and were joined by the two adults and all went through the back door to safety.

But one resident remained inside: Naboo, the chocolate-coloured poodle. Coel ran back in - but the smoke had thickened and reached down to his knees. "I took six steps but I couldn't see, couldn't breathe," he said and was forced outside again.

He then tried one last thing, giving a loud, piercing whistle and, finally, brave little Naboo jumped out of a window on to the roof of the carport and down to join them.

By then, the roof had collapsed and the house was gone. It took just nine minutes to burn to the ground.

Afterwards, only a bucketful of burnt and twisted bits and pieces and a set of charred metal bells remained. The bells, still tarnished and mis-shapen, now hang on the Ibbertsons' veranda as a reminder.

He said the fire service did tremendously well to arrive as quickly as it did but there had been problems connecting to the water main.

Coel now lives back with his family in Emu Park, his work at the mines cut short by a motorcycle accident six months before the fire which saw eight inches of titanium alloy plate and 10 screws inserted in and around his collarbone.

He can't pass the medical to return. He's still in pain, restricted in movement and doing rehabilitation. "I can't lift anything heavy any more," he said.

The injury makes his actions all the more remarkable.

Coel said he told his story first in 2012 only because it was linked to an appeal to help the stricken family.

He is telling it a second time now because he wants people to remember the dangers and learn from his experiences.

"Get to know your neighbours," he said. "It was all over so quickly and I was only able to do what I did because I knew them and their house.

"My mother's been here for 11 years and Julie was her best friend. I knew them, too. I'd been round and cooked tea for the kids."

Presenting Coel with his medal, the Governor said: "This was an exceptional act of courage.

"One thing that always impresses me is the modesty of all bravery award recipients," she said.

ROADWORKS: Expect delays on the Bruce Highway

Premium Content ROADWORKS: Expect delays on the Bruce Highway

Roadworks are commencing both north and south of Marlborough.

NAMED: Who will be key to Capras under-16 campaign

Premium Content NAMED: Who will be key to Capras under-16 campaign

Young guns counting down to season kickoff in Cyril Connell Challenge.

Police search for man who harassed, threatened motorist

Premium Content Police search for man who harassed, threatened motorist

“The male driver of the HiLux sounded the horn, flashed lights and signalled for...