AS 150 wedding guests huddled in a bluestone stable while the Gazette bushfire raged around them, two Hamilton bus drivers raced into the flames to ferry them to safety.
Driving through intense smoke and ferocious wind, Trotters Coaches bus drivers Matty Nield and David Moller never second-guessed their decision to leave Hamilton two hours earlier than expected to save the guests.
A year on from the devastating fires, Mr Nield and Mr Moller recalled the night they pleaded with Country Fire Authority members to let them past a road block to collect the terrified people at the Moyle family farm.
"We were booked to go back there at 11.30pm," Mr Nield said.
"We left one bus out there and came back in one. Everything was as per normal. It was a really hot day and then all of a sudden the wind picked up and it was just crazy. The wind was was out of control. I rang David about 8.30pm and said I think we should go out an hour earlier because of the wind.
"We thought because it was so extreme there was a good chance we would have an issue with trees across the road. We thought we might not get out there for an 11.30pm pick up. We didn't even know at that stage there was a fire."
The drivers jumped back on the bus about 9pm and made their way to Gazette.
"We got five kilometres out the road and there was a dirty great big gum tree blocking the road," Mr Nield said.
"Luckily there was another guy that turned up on the other side of the road in a four-wheel drive. With the three of us we were able to put a snatch strap on the tree and drag it off the road. Five minutes later we got a phone call from Jo (Trotters Coaches employee) in the office saying 'you better get out there'. We said we were already on the way. She was the one that told us the fire had started out there."
Mr Moller said as they kept driving they could see the environment changing.
"We could see a red glow," he said.
"Once we got further on it was getting brighter and brighter. In Hamilton we were north of it all. The wind was blowing to the south."
Mr Nield said they "couldn't drive any quicker than what we were going" in the extreme weather.
"It was just crazy," he said.
"We were realising we were driving into the fire."
Mr Moller said they soon realised the Gazette property was in the direct line of the fire.
They reached a CFA road block.
"The first line stopped us and said 'you can't go any further, we aren't letting you in'," Mr Nield said.
"I said 'we have to go, there's 150 guests just down here at a wedding reception'. They said they couldn't let us in. I said 'we've got to go - we've got to get these people'. They let us down to the next line.
"They were about 50 metres in front of where we had to turn into the driveway, so we just didn't worry about them and went in. By this stage you couldn't see anything, it was smoke and flames."
The first line of the CFA stopped us and said 'you can't go any further, we aren't letting you in'. I said 'we have got to go, there's 150 guests just down here at a wedding reception'. They said they couldn't let us in. I said 'we've got to go - we've got to get these people'.Bus driver Matty Nield helped save 150 wedding guests who sheltered in a stable as the Gazette fire roared
Mr Moller said he knew the property had already been hit by the fire.
"We didn't know what we were driving into," he said.
"By the time we got there the guests were all sheltering inside the stable. There was two or three fire trucks there. It was a fairly safe refuge for them - there were bluestone walls. The guests didn't know we were there as they were inside.
"We got out and took off to the building and told them 'we've got to go, we've got to get out'. Once the doors were open I think the reality for them set in. They came from inside not realising how close it was."
Mr Moller recalled when dropping the guests off earlier in the day himself and Mr Nield had a discussion about where to leave one of the buses.
"If we had of left it where we first thought it would have got scorched," he said. "But where we left it was a nice green patch. Of course we weren't thinking anything would happen."
Mr Nield said the guests rushed onto the buses.
"They were pretty good. There was a lot of concern and a bit of panicking," he said.
"Once people got on the bus we started moving. We had to drive towards the fire to get out. For them we were driving and everyone was just looking at us driving into the fire. We had to go left and it was running down the sides of the buses. By this stage the flames were right beside us. We were escorted out by a couple of fire trucks. It looked really bad for the people."
Mr Nield said about 80 per cent of the guests were calm while some were anxious.
"One lady had a really bad panic attack on my bus," he said.
"She passed out and was unconscious. She laid out in the middle of the floor. There wasn't a lot I could do at that stage. I had to think of the majority and get us out of there. Thankfully there was a lady on the bus who was a nurse. She took control of the other lady and looked after her.
"An ambulance arrived a few kilometres down the road for her. They came on the bus and said the nurse had everything under control. Form there we made our way back to Hamilton and I went straight to the hospital. There was a bit of concern as it was an extreme attack and the nurse was really worried about her because she was coming in and out of consciousness."
Mr Nield said it was a daunting trip from Gazette back to Hamilton.
"You had no vision because the smoke was so thick," he said.
Mr Moller said the intensity of the situation hit him later.
"You just get in and do it at the time," he said. "You don't think about it."
Mr Nield said he didn't think twice about driving into the fire.
"We knew they were waiting for us and we knew we had to do our job and if we didn't it was going to be horrific," he said.
He said the nurse from the bus and a wedding guest, as well as Lowan MP Emma Kealy had sent letters thanking them for their efforts.
"It wasn't until after we thought it was a pretty incredible thing we achieved," he said.
- If you or someone you know needs help or support, call Lifeline's 24/7 national telephone helpline service on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636. Good resources are also available at RUOK: https://www.ruok.org.au
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