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Top Bloke

By ScienceGeek | Books | August 19, 2010 |

By ScienceGeek | Books | August 19, 2010 |

In 1997, two chalets at Thredbo Ski resort in New South Wales collapsed due to a landslide, causing three and a half tons of building, snow, trees and ‘debris’ to slide down the mountain. It’s one of those events that echoes in people’s minds, in no small part because, after over two days, a living survivor was found. Stuart Diver was buried three metres down, under (among other things) a piece of concrete about 300m long that used to be the carpark. In the first hour or so of his entrapment, he watched his wife drown. In the end, he was there for 65 hours, most of that utterly alone and in complete darkness, in a space so narrow you could barely fit your hand between the concrete and his chest.

But for the final 11 and a half hours, he had Paul Featherstone, a paramedic. And what a paramedic. Paul was one of the first paramedics in NSW, and the instigator of an specialist branch (SCAT) that focuses on getting aid to people in dire circumstances — those who’d fallen off a cliff, gotten lost for three days in bushland, or ended up in the ocean on a very bad day. Or, in Paul’s most famous case, trapped under a few tons of former ski resort. Whatever the situation, ‘Feathers’ will do his best to get you out alive.

This book is Paul’s story. He’s had a hell of an interesting life. Aside from Thredbo, he also attended one of NSW’s other gut-wrenching disasters: the Granville train smash. A packed commuter train derailed and crashed into a bridge, which then collapsed on top of two carriages, crushing the occupants. Eight-three people lost their lives, and Paul, who spent 36 hours at the site (against the wishes of his superiors, who’d decided that the then newish paramedics weren’t needed) describes the inside of the most-damaged carriage when the bridge was pulled off it — dozens of dead people, still sitting in their seats, coffee and papers in their laps.

There are several chapters dedicated to Thredbo, and between that and the foreword written by Stuart, you find yourself in the middle of mutual admiration society. Paul has nothing but praise for Stuart’s strength, both physical and mental. He describes the intense bond that formed between them, and, without going into detail, some of the topics they covered, including the loss of Sally, Stuart’s wife.

This should be a horrifying book. In some parts, it is. But overall, it’s actually quite uplifting. Not long after describing the horror of Granville, Paul speaks of the ‘unknown rescuer’, a local construction worker who, almost asleep on his feet, was still carving up chunks of the bridge with his own jack-hammer. Trapped in that hellish coffin of debris, Paul told Stuart Diver thousands of people who were working to free him. When Stuart was finally freed, Paul describes telling him ‘mate, the world is cheering for you’ as those people created a ‘grand-finale like cheer’, and passed Stuart, bound in his stretcher, hand over hand, down the slope to the medical centre.

I’m not entirely sure if this kind of response is simply an Australian thing, and it feels incredibly condescending to claim that it is. But our country is relatively unpopulated for its size, and frankly, between the animals and the landscape, we’re well aware that we’re outnumbered. As a result, there’s a huge culture of volunteering here. Our coasts are guarded by surf-life saving clubs, our homes protected by the State Emergency Service and Country Fire Authority. There’s organisations like St Johns Ambulance and the Salvation Army (and Paul pays particular credit to the ‘Sallies’) who patch up the bumps and pick up the pieces. Even if you aren’t a formal volunteer, if something goes wrong, inevitably, you pitch the fuck in and help.

Paul’s a big fan of this attitude. He’s also a huge fan of ‘mind, body and spirit’, and keeping all three in balance. I was slightly surprised to learn that he’s good friends with Kerry Packer, one of the richest men in Australia (when Packer went overseas for a heart operation, Paul took time off work to go with him).

If I have a flaw with this book, it’s that the involvement of a second (ghost?) writer can make this a little too much like a carefully-constructed interview. I have absolutely no doubt that Paul Featherstone is an incredible man, and remarkably modest, given his achievements, but an autobiography can be quite illuminating in ways the author may not realise, and I think I would have liked to have been able to read a little more between the lines. I suspect Paul might be the kind of guy who regularly pisses off his superiors, and might take chances they don’t approve of, but through a combination of not being stupid and perhaps a little luck, he’s managed to avoid the usual major fuck-ups.

This is, basically, the story of a Top Bloke (‘Top Bloke’, as recognised by my Ocker Aussie core, is the highest praise that can be bestowed upon a man). When doing a bit of background research to find out what he’d been up to since the book was written, I discovered that he’d helped Brant Webb and Todd Russell, who were trapped for two weeks following a mine collapse. It seems he’s become a bit of an expert in the rare field of ‘getting poor buried bastards out alive and sane’.

I will add, though, that this is probably not the best book to read when honeymooning along a picturesque but treacherous road, just after some particularly excited storm activity. You might end up just a bit paranoid.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of ScienceGeek’s reviews, check out his blog, Suburban Scientist.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.