Humble hero praised by Governor, and a grateful community
He’s the humble hero whose actions earned him a Bravery Medal, conferred by Her Excellency at a recent Government House Investiture Ceremony.
But Rockhampton plumber Craig O’Brien says he didn’t tell too many people about his inclusion on this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours list, recognition for his actions in saving an elderly neighbour from a house fire in Park Avenue in February 2020.
“I kept it pretty close to my chest, didn’t talk about it, so this is probably the first time any of them are really hearing about it,” he says of his hard-won Bravery Medal, meaning anyone other than a few close family and friends.
“It’s hard to relive a moment like that, really. You try and not think about it. I ended up in the ICU for a couple of nights.”
'The flames began spreading'
Mr O’Brien's actions, now they’ve been made public, have earned him high praise from those who saw his citation shared on Her Excellency’s Facebook page, with close to 1,000 positive reactions to the post in the first few days online.
His citation reads: At about 8:30pm, Mr Craig O'Brien heard glass smashing and saw fire coming from the back window of the neighbour's house. He then called out for assistance from his brother, Mr Mathew O’Brien, while their mother called Triple 0.
Mr Craig O'Brien jumped the fence, ran up the back stairs and kicked open a locked door. He entered the house and ran through flames before locating the elderly and partially disabled woman in a smoke-filled bedroom. As he was getting the disorientated woman out of bed, the woman fell over. Mr Craig O’Brien was forced to drag her out of the room as the flames began spreading to the ceiling. He pulled her into the kitchen but had to stop to move furniture that was blocking the way.
Mr Mathew O’Brien then arrived and assisted his brother in moving the woman to the top of the stairs. By this time the intense heat from the fire was melting the house cladding and the eaves were on fire. Mr Craig O'Brien instructed Mr Mathew O’Brien to get a garden hose to douse them and the house.
Mr O’Brien was surprised by the reaction, but he says few people who know him well were surprised by his actions that day.
“They all expected it,” he says of his close-knit community. “I wear my heart on my sleeve. People know who I am and what I’m about. I’m always the loudest in the crowd. People know me around town. They didn’t think anything of it really - I’m always the first to put my hand up to do something.”
Asked what Her Excellency the Honourable Dr Jeannette Young AC PSM had said during his private moment with her, as she conferred the Bravery Medal on him at the Investiture Ceremony, he remained discreet, but offered: “She said it takes a special kind of person to do something like that.”
'I thought, we’re in trouble here'
Mr O’Brien says his actions were instinctive more than anything, but concedes he feared at one point that he had signed his own death warrant.
“You don’t really get a chance to think about something like that. You just have to do it.
“You have to stay calm-headed and make sure everyone’s OK.
“I grew up on farms and living in more outdoor life. I’ve been in situations before, although nothing like that.
“I was in there for quite a while, half an hour. The lady that I saved was a bit bigger than me so it took all my strength to get her out.
“Once the adrenaline died off and I realised no-one else was coming in to help me I thought, we’re in trouble here. Luckily, we got out.”
“Once the fire was starting to take over, I got to a point where I had to decide whether to leave her or keep going. But we kept going, and we got her out.
The “we” refers to his brother, Matthew O’Brien, who assisted in the rescue.
“My brother could only come in for a short amount of time, because he couldn’t breathe, but he kept checking on me, making sure I was OK,” he says.
“By the time I got her to the back stairs, he came in and helped me get her down the stairs, and with the help of the neighbours.
'A hard thing to live with'
Would he do it again?
“It’s a hard thing to live with afterward - you have moments when you think about what could have happened. Sometimes it’s something you have to do, or you’ll lose someone you love.
“She (the neighbour) was more of a grandmother figure to us. We mowed her lawn and had dinners with her.
“We’re still in touch. She’s in a retirement village, loving life, bowling with all the oldies.”
Would he ever consider making a career of saving people, perhaps by joining the fire and rescue service?
“I did think about (the Fire and Rescue) when I was young, but I love my holidays and days off too much,” he laughs.
“I like going camping and adventuring. It might be something for further down the track, but at the moment I’m enjoying what I’m doing.”