John McAlister (centre) with Acting Inspector Paul Fredericks (left) and Lismore fire station officer Ian Grimwood at St Vincent’s Hospital yesterday.
John McAlister (centre) with Acting Inspector Paul Fredericks (left) and Lismore fire station officer Ian Grimwood at St Vincent’s Hospital yesterday. Jacklyn Wagner

Brave beyond words

SEARING flames roared between John McAlister and the small metal tap that could kill the gas and save St Vincent’s Private Hospital in Lismore.

So he did the only thing he could think of and plunged his hands into the inferno.

It was a brave but futile move that left Mr McAlister’s hands badly burned and the fire, fuelled by leaking gas in the hospital’s boiler room, undiminished.

Speaking at a reception for him at St Vincent’s yesterday, Mr McAlister, 38, the hospital’s maintenance manager, said he had been looking up at another gas cut-off valve above the boiler after the initial explosion on April 29, wondering how to reach it, when a second blast knocked him down.

The boiler room was filled with a giant gas fireball, and Mr McAlister was in the middle of it.

“I remember scurrying out of there and as I scurried it (the fire) was surrounding me,” he said. “It was like I was being followed by the flames.”

He got through, but suffered horrific injuries in those seconds.

“I looked at my hands and saw there was no skin left. It was dripping off my arms and legs, stringing like it had melted,” he said.

“I remember screaming for help once I got out.”

Mr McAlister said he had believed his ears were burned from his head and his lips from his face.

Terrified, he banged on the door of the hospital calling for help, then looked back at the flames still shooting from the boiler room.

There have been reports Mr McAlister ran back into the flames to shut down the gas valve and save the hospital. If he had, he and possibly many others would be dead now and that section of the hospital burned to the ground.

What he did was even more amazing. Despite horrific injuries, fear, and pain, Mr McAlister began looking for another way to turn off the gas and eventually found an outdoor gas meter.

His hands useless, Mr McAlister kicked the cover free and then closed the valve using his foot.

“Instantly about 90 per cent of the flames were gone,” he said.

By then, one of the nurses had reached him. In the dark, unable to see his injuries, she reached out and touched his arm, burning her hand on the intense heat radiating off his body.

Once back in the hospital they put him under a shower before putting him on a gurney for treatment with saline solution.

Even then, as he started shaking and going into shock, Mr McAlister was issuing instructions to be passed to maintenance staff the next day. He continued doing that until he was sedated.

He was flown to the Royal Brisbane Hospital’s burns unit and spent more than two weeks in an induced coma.

Mr McAlister said he has probably about another 18 months in his burns suit, doing painful physiotherapy and waiting for his skin to heal.

He is in constant pain and has been told damage to his left eye is irreparable and will steadily worsen.

However, Mr McAlister, who was this week issued News Ltd’s Pride of Australia Medal for outstanding bravery, is looking to the positive – and there is plenty of it.

He said he had been stunned at the level of support from the Lismore community.

He had received letters and cards of support from complete strangers.

He had also defied medical predictions, cutting what was expected to be a minimum three-month stay in the burns unit to less than six weeks.

Richmond Local Area Command Acting Inspector Paul Fredericks, who was on duty the night of the fire, lauded MrMcAlister for his bravery.

“John certainly averted a catastrophic event,” he said.

A spokesman for WorkCover said the authority’s inspectors were still investigating the blaze.

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