Two reluctant heroes reflect on the events that changed their lives – RN
Nurse Anne Carey and pilot Richard de Crespigny have both used their experiences to try to help others. (Supplied)
Pilot Richard de Crespigny and nurse Anne Carey have one thing in common: they’re life-savers.
Mr de Crespigny steered a plane to safety after its engine failed mid-air, and Ms Carey ventured into Sierra Leone’s ‘death trap’ as the Ebola virus swept through.
But the two Australians don’t see themselves as heroes.
“I don’t really like the term hero,” Mr de Crespigny says.
“I think there are no heroic people, but only heroic actions.”
‘I knew something was wrong’
Mr de Crespigny’s heroic action came on November 4, 2010, about four minutes after his Qantas A380 took off.
He was steering the plane toward cruising altitude — generally considered the safest part of the flight — when a mid-air explosion shattered its left engine.
The first bang sounded like the backfire of a car.
The second was louder and unexpected.
“I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what was wrong and how deep,” Mr de Crespigny recalls.
“The first thing was not to worry, not to get startled into a flight-or-fright paralysis.”
The plane’s vital operating system had ripped itself to shreds, destroying the engine, fuel system and landing gear, and putting a hole in a wing.
Outside the window, trails of smoke streamed from ruptured tanks.
Passengers panicked, and cabin crew sprang into action.
But in the cockpit, the captain remained calm as he steadied Flight QF32, carrying 440 passengers and 29 crew bound for Sydney from Singapore.
A few quick checks determined the extent of the damage and within seconds, Mr de Crespigny was tackling a situation most pilots only face during a simulated training exercise: landing a plane after a mid-air engine failure.
“Even though we didn’t have solutions at the time, I knew that, with the experts we had on board, we would be creative and think up novel solutions,” he says.
“I knew we would be OK.”
For the next four hours, he was in control, manoeuvring the plane into a holding pattern and eventually landing safely back in Singapore with all passengers safe and unharmed.
He has since been called a hero, but Mr de Crespigny says his swift action was simply a no-brainer.
“The overriding goal was to get every passenger off the aircraft alive,” he says.
“The aircraft itself is just an expensive screwdriver, so it was the safety of the people [which was most important] and when you think like that everything becomes simple.”
Part of the solution
Ms Carey is also reluctant to wear the ‘hero’ title.
When the Ebola virus hit parts of Africa in 2014, she was one of a handful of medical professionals who went to Sierra Leone.
“At the time, we were surrounded in Australia by a lot of fear, so not a lot of people were putting their hands up to go,” Ms Carey says.
“I felt it would be better to be part of the solution, rather than a spectator.”
Anne Carey caring for patients at a Red Cross Ebola treatment centre in Kenema, Sierra Leone. (Australian Red Cross: Michael Duff)
In extreme summer heat, Ms Carey cared for hundreds of victims — often children — wearing little more than a protective ‘space suit’.
“I don’t remember being fearful really,” she says.
“It’s like when people go to war: sometimes you may not return from situations. I accepted it and I went and did what I had to do.”
On her first day, she met a mother whose entire family had perished.
“For that mum, it was just heartbreaking because this was her seventh child in the Ebola treatment centre,” she says.
“That was my first hour, and I realised she had nothing to live for because she survived, and I had no right to any self-pity. That changed everything for me, that first hour.”
Since returning to Australia, Ms Carey has been named Western Australian of the year and received the Florence Nightingale Medal — the highest award for a nurse.
But like Mr de Crespigny, she is cautious about referring to herself as a hero.
“Every person that admitted themselves to the Ebola treatment centre [saved] so many lives because they isolated themselves, knowing they would die an awful painful and lonely death, to save others,” she says.
“They’re the heroes.”
The value of kindness
In the years after their experiences, both Mr de Crespigny and Ms Carey have used their experiences to try to help others.
Mr de Crespigny suffered post-traumatic stress, which forced him to step back and seek treatment.
“In the first few days after the incident, if I looked at text I couldn’t understand it,” he says.
“I was very emotional, I would cry, my mind was stuck in a four-hour loop of the whole incident.”
He has since written a book documenting his experience and subsequent recovery and hopes that through his experience, he can help others.
Ms Carey has used her profile to highlight the issue of workplace bullying in the Australian healthcare sector.
“Health departments and governments need to acknowledge that bullying is happening in order for the culture to change,” she says.
“I think we need to reintroduce [the] value of kindness into health care [to] create a kind place to work.”