Talking about the explosion on May 20, 2015 always leaves Darren Fyfe emotionally exhausted.
He saved a life that day, but for a long time the 54-year-old couldn’t see it that way.
“I used to say to myself ‘I didn’t save one, I lost one’,” he told The New Daily as one of 83 recipients of the Australian Bravery Award announced on Tuesday.
That one he “lost” was mother-of-two Leanne Smith.
Mr Fyfe managed to pull her then 25-year-old son Ryan out of their burning car, which had been struck from behind with such force that it spun out of control before catching fire.
When the car exploded for the first time after the crash, the pair was still trapped inside.
Mr Fyfe recalls seeing, through the flames, a pair of men’s boots sticking out the passenger window before, without hesitation, making a beeline for the burning car.
That’s when the vehicle blew up, sending him flying through the air – but Mr Fyfe wasn’t down for long.
He again raced to the crushed car, managing to grab hold of the boots and, after “three or four hard pulls”, dragged Ryan to safety.
The car exploded again, trapping 51-year-old Leanne inside.
Mr Fyfe later revisited the scene of the tragic incident on the Sturt Highway, near Blanchetown in South Australia.
“I went back six weeks later to say ‘sorry Leanne, I couldn’t get you out’.”
As a truck driver, Mr Fyfe was in his own accident 12 years before the Blanchetown incident.
Then, he suffered an acquired brain injury and needed three skull reconstruction surgeries after his truck rolled over.
His back was broken in three places and multiple ribs were crushed.
After recovery, Mr Fyfe couldn’t bear going back to work because of the trauma of that day – so he stayed without a job for 12 years.
Eventually, he ran out of money and decided to return to driving trucks interstate.
Mr Fyfe was just three months into his new role when he came upon the accident involving Ryan and Leanne.
On his way from Sydney to Adelaide, Mr Fyfe saw what looked like a fireball up ahead.
“Every time I talk about it or someone brings it up, I just start crying,” Mr Fyfe said. “I was there on my own.
As soon as I pulled up my truck, I was out of the truck and running. All I could hear was the screaming.’’
He hasn’t worked since that May 2015 day – and now lives in a mental health facility that has been helping him, for the past few years, deal with the trauma.
The hardest thing for Mr Fyfe to accept has been that Leanne’s death was not his fault.
In fact, the man who rear-ended her car, Ian Peter Clarke, was arrested and charged with dangerous driving – a charge to which he entered a guilty plea earlier this month.
Of his actions that day Mr Fyfe believes “any caring person would have done the same thing”.
Given all that he’s been through, Mr Fyfe wants others to know “it’s easy to be a good person” and “anyone can do it”.
He also has an especially important message for his daughter.
“I haven’t seen my daughter since she was two and I was just hoping if I ever went on telly (sic) or anything, she might see me and think I’m not as bad as her mum made me out to be. She would be 30 now.”
Governor-General David Hurley said all awards recognised “courage and sacrifice” and “people who, in a moment of danger or threat, think of others ahead of their own safety”.
“We celebrate their bravery and the example that they set: Putting others before self and a willingness to help strangers, the vulnerable and those in danger in the most difficult of times.”
Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Mr Fyfe and the other recipients will receive their award during a ceremony at their state or territory Government House at a later date.
To see the full list of recipients, click here.