Newlywed Sam McPaul, 28, who died when his firefighting truck flipped during a ‘fire tornado’ in country NSW was expecting his first child with his wife, Megan.
An emotional RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said the couple had married less than 18 months ago and were looking forward to welcoming a baby on May 4.
Mr McPaul died on Monday afternoon as he was fighting the Green Valley fires east of Albury in freak weather conditions. Extreme winds lifted his eight-tonne truck off the ground and tipped it upside down.
“Quite unexpectedly, very suddenly, they experienced extreme winds and what could only be described as a fire tornado that lifted the back of the truck, fully inverted it and landed it on its roof, trapping three people, three crew that is, and unfortunately, one of them fatally,” NSW RFS district manager Superintendent Patrick Westwood told the ABC on Tuesday.
“The driver was a veteran captain of 35 years-plus experience.
“He thought he was in the right spot – as he was, from what I can understand – and just this freakish weather event that would have to be seen to be believed. Even then, other veteran firefighters don’t believe what they saw, [it] engulfed that vehicle with flame, fire, and strong winds and literally picked up an eight-tonne truck and flipped it over.”
About 5.50pm on Monday, police received reports a NSW Rural Fire Service truck with three men on board had rolled on a property at River Road, Jingellic, about 110 kilometres east of Albury.
A second vehicle working in the same area was also blown over and the firefighter on board has been transported to hospital.
A second fire truck passenger, a 39-year-old man, was taken to The Alfred hospital in Melbourne, in a serious condition after suffering burns.
The truck’s driver, 52, was taken to Holbrook Hospital with minor injuries. He has since been released from hospital.
“It’s believed the two passengers were firefighting from the refuge area behind the main cabin when the vehicle rolled,” NSW Police said.
Mr McPaul died at the scene.
“Our hearts are breaking for Sam’s family,” Commissioner Fitzsimmons said on Tuesday.
“Megan and Sam have been married now for nearly 18 months… so we’ve got a completely devastated family, a devastated local community; it has been an extraordinary loss.”
“As you would expect, the family is grieving and it’s been a very difficult night – it would be fair to say I don’t even think the comprehension has set in of the enormity of the tragedy and the loss.”
The Rural Fire Service confirmed the news of Mr McPaul’s death just after 7pm on Monday.
“Our heart goes out to everyone who knew him, who worked with him and we can’t explain or appreciate what his family and loved ones are going through,” Premier Gladys Berejiklian said.
Just heartbreaking. A brave firefighter has lost their life protecting the community east of Albury. Words fail at times like this.
— Gladys Berejiklian (@GladysB) December 30, 2019
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who was overseas when two firefighters were killed before Christmas, said he was “devastated at the terrible news of the loss of another volunteer firefighter”.
Mr Morrison revealed he had spoken to Mr McPaul’s widow, Megan, on Tuesday morning.
“Sam McPaul was a brave firefighter and a member of the Morven Rural Fire Brigade,” he said.
“I cannot imagine the terrible sense of loss and grief that Sam’s family are now feeling. I have spoken to Megan to extend my deepest sympathies and our love and support at this terrible time and express that same sentiment on behalf of the entire country.
“Sam McPaul was the best of us. This is devastating news and I also extend my sincere condolences to his entire family, friends and fellow brigade members. It is an unimaginable loss and one felt by the entire country.”
Devastated at the terrible news of the loss of another volunteer firefighter and two others injured near Jingellic in southern NSW where a truck has rolled over. In a separate vehicle another firefighter has been injured.
— Scott Morrison (@ScottMorrisonMP) December 30, 2019
The tragedy follows the deaths of Geoffrey Keaton, 32, and Andrew O’Dwyer, 36, from the Horsley Park brigade, who were killed when their fire truck rolled fighting a blaze south of Sydney.
Both were new fathers – with two 19-month-old babies born just days apart left without their dads. A fund has been set up to donate to the families.