A young girl who donned her father’s firefighter helmet and was pinned with a medal honoring his sacrifice at his funeral has made the rounds online. It symbolized the devastating toll that bushfires in southeast Australia have had on the firefighters and their families.
When a vehicle that they were driving rolled over, New South Wales Rural Fire Service (RFS) volunteers Andrew O’Dwyer, 36, and Geoffrey Keaton, 32, lost their lives. Both firefighters left behind families, both with 19-month-old toddlers born just two days apart. The men’s funerals were gut wrenching.
Keaton’s posthumous medal for bravery was pinned on his son Harvey’s chest at the much-publicized farewell, followed by O’Dwyer’s daughter Charlotte, who received her father’s medal in turn.
The two firefighters were driving in the front of fire truck in the town of Buxton near Sydney on Dec. 19, 2019, when a falling tree caused their vehicle to roll over. While O’Dwyer and Keaton were both killed, three other firefighters in the back of the vehicle were taken to the hospital and managed to survive.
The memorial service for Andrew O’Dwyer was held at Our Lady of Victories Catholic Church in the Sydney suburb of Horsley Park. Little Charlotte’s mother, Melissa O’Dwyer, had also joined the RFS in order to spend more time with her husband. In addition to Mrs. O’Dwyer and Charlotte, the fallen firefighters’ father, Errol O’Dwyer, gave a speech in honor of his son’s sacrifice.
RFS Chief Shane Fitzsimmons presented both families with posthumous medals for bravery, which were received by their children. “Charlotte should know her father was a selfless and special man, who only left because he was a hero,” Fitzsimmons said at the service, per The Daily Mail.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison and New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian were also in attendance.
Like thousands of other firefighters standing between the bushfires and the populous states of Victoria and New South Wales, O’Dwyer and Keaton were volunteers. Close to 90 percent of the New South Wales RFS’s active firefighters are volunteers, per the BBC.
To help recognize the round-the-clock work being done by the country’s firefighter volunteers and the impact it would have on their families, the Australian government announced just before the New Year that volunteers would be compensated for their time.
After initially opposing the idea of changing the law in order to pay contracted volunteers, Prime Minister Scott Morrison changed his position in response to the unprecedented nature of the blazes.
“While I know RFS volunteers don’t seek payment for their service, I don’t want to see volunteers or their families unable to pay bills, or struggle financially as a result of the selfless contribution they are making,” he said in a press release. “This is not about paying volunteers. It is about sustaining our volunteer efforts by protecting them from financial loss.”
On Jan. 4 and 5, New South Wales, and Australia as a whole, had something to celebrate as a weather front brought rain and cooler temperatures to the area, helping slow down the massive fires. However, overall conditions remain extremely dangerous, especially in forests and national parks.
New South Wales Premier Berejiklian stated, per The National Post:
“This morning it is all about recovery, making sure people who have been displaced have somewhere safe (to go) and it is making sure we have resources to build up the presence on the ground to clean up the roads, clean up where the rubble exists.”