ON July 30, 1997, Stuart Diver was pulled from the rubble of a catastrophic landslide at the village and ski resort in Thredbo.
He was alive despite being trapped for three days. Sadly his wife, Sally, had died along with 17 others.
One of the rescuers who pulled bodies – both dead and alive – from the devastation was Superintendent Stephen Hirst.
Supt Hirst was, at the time, one of only a handful of firefighters trained in urban search and rescue.
Two decades later, he reflected on the incident. He is the Zone Commander for Regional North 1 Zone Office based in Port Macquarie.
It has been almost 20 years, and to mark the anniversary Supt Hirst spoke about his experiences at Thredbo, although he admits that it is not something he thinks about often.
“I don’t think about it much at all to be honest,” he said.
“It did have a huge impact on my life at the time. It was a massive, big thing. It probably catapulted me in my career, but it’s just a distant memory now.
“Coming up to it, I wasn’t aware of the anniversary. It surprised me that it was coming up, so I find myself recalling it quite a bit. I’ve had a lot go on in those 20 years.”
The most lasting memory Supt Hirst has of the landslide and ensuing rescue, which lasted days, is the removal of Sally Diver’s body.
“That was one of the most arduous and hardest things I did at that time down there,” he said.
“I remember how hard it was and where it was. I was working with a retained firefighter doing the task, and I can’t remember who it was. I’d love to meet him again and share some memories with him.
“It was a high part of my career and a low part of my career, because of the people who lost their lives.”
Supt Hirst was first alerted to the landslide on the radio that morning.
“I was off duty and commented, “Oh, I’ve been trained in that,” but didn’t think much more of it until I started getting phone calls saying, "we need you here now,”,” he was quoted in the media as saying.
“Straightaway, I called in to the City of Sydney Fire Station and picked up my gear. I’d said my goodbye to my wife at 5am that morning to go to Manly and came home 10 days later.
“All I had were the clothes I was wearing and my firefighting gear.”
He arrived on scene when it was pitch black, with only one thing standing out in his eyes – the sheer grade of the slope.
“You’d stand with one foot on the ground and another around the height of your waist in order to keep your footing,” he said.
“You were looking at things and wondering what it was. Bathroom tiles above your head, kids toys strewn about … things where they didn’t belong."
“Early on, we still had a great deal of optimism that we’d find people because there’d been talk of voices.
“And the adrenaline was mad and kept us going. As time wore on, the hope that we’d find people alive started to face.”
Supt Hirst recalled the moment he could hear Mr Diver’s voice.
“I was working with a good friend, Geoff Courtney. We were harnessed up on lines because we were working in a precarious spot,” he said.
“I said “Geoff, I heard something.” He said, “You’ve got rocks in your head.” It was certainly hard to hear.
“But I said, “Mate, I’ve heard something strange.” My heart was racing. When it was finally still, I lay down with my mouth to the concrete and yelled out, “Rescue party working overhead. Can anyone hear me?” I heard a reply.
I said, “Mate, I’ve heard something strange.” My heart was racing.Stephen Hirst
“… “I can hear you.” And that was Stuart. It was like a miracle.
“We didn’t want to leave. We wanted to get him out because we found him. But through discipline we handed over to NSW Fire Brigade Inspector Warwick Kidd’s crew.
“They worked tirelessly for eight hours and then were replaced by us yet again.”
Stuart Diver was eventually lifted out on a stretcher and Insp Hirst shook the hand of the man he found miraculously alive hours earlier.
“It was just crazy seeing him there in the light,” he said.
“And once he was out of the hole, he was taken up along a chain of people to an ambulance. And then we all shook hands, gave each other a hug and went back to work.
“I occasionally think about what happened, when someone bobs up on the news of I see Thredo mentioned in the weather report.
“Looking back in terms of my career, it was a high and an all-time low because of the tragedy behind it. I hope I never see anything on that scale again.”
Something so traumatic could have had an adverse impact on the mental state of Supt Hirst, but he soldiered on with the aid of his department.
“We have a great network to be able to work within ourselves and have great support,” he said. “It was more the press limelight that I found overwhelming at the time, just to be thrown into that.”
The area of search and rescue has come on in leaps and bounds since then. And that advancement is a source of pride for Supt Hirst.
“We have an internationally accredited team here in Australia, just specialising in techniques and finding people,” he said.
“NSW Emergency Services have really kept on the forefront of things and we’re going ahead in leaps and bounds in emergency management.
“I’m very proud to be where I am now, and if I had my chance to do it all again I’d do it again.”