Two members of the US Marines have been recognised for helping to save houses from a blaze that destroyed a primary school at an Aussie military facility in December last year.
The US Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal was awarded to the pair who had been posted to the School of Armour at Puckapunyal Training Area in Victoria at the time. They are Master Sergeant John ‘Ricky’ Farrell IV and Gunnery Sergeant Ryan Accornero.
The award is presented to service members of the US Navy and US Marine Corps (USMC) who have performed commendably in routine duties or for exceptional achievements.
On the Sunday afternoon of the fire, both men were at the Weapon and Tactics Wing at the School of Armour when they noticed a large smoke plume. Without hesitation, both got into Gunnery Sergeant Accornero’s car and drove towards the incident.
“We were concerned as Gunnery Sergeant Accornero’s home is less than 200m from the buildings that would’ve been burning,” Master Sergeant Farrell said.
School was already engulfed in flames
“When we arrived, the school was fully engulfed in flames. The wind was very strong, which was a serious cause for concern because many homes on Alamein Road were at risk if the fire couldn’t be contained.”
This apprehension was shared by Gunnery Sergeant Accornero. “As we drove, I came to the realisation that not only was this fire far larger than we anticipated, but that its location was near military service members’ houses,” he said.
Joining three Australian Army members already on scene – Major Matthew Whitwell, Major Johnny Ozols and Warrant Officer Class 2 Bernie Maus – it became clear the fire would soon overwhelm the civilian authorities at the scene.
“At that time there were only four firefighters. I identified from the direction of the wind that there was potential for the fire to jump and spread from the school,” Gunnery Sergeant Accornero said. “I knew we had to do something.”
The Marines provided direct assistance to the Country Fire Authority personnel, replacing expended oxygen cylinders on the firefighters’ breathing apparatus, laying out and connecting additional water hoses and removing debris to allow access for additional fire trucks.
Fire hoses were being burned through
Major Whitwell said the fire was so intense that fire hoses were being burned through or bursting, with military personnel replacing damaged sections with new hose.
“As the fire progressed through the school’s main building, thick black smoke was enveloping us and it became very difficult to breathe and see each other,” Major Whitwell said.
Undeterred, Gunnery Sergeant Accornero assisted Major Whitwell and Major Ozols with a spare water hose and attacked the fire front.
Major Ozols said the Marines continued to assist local fire crews and their ADF colleagues for about 45 minutes.
“Without [the Marines’] selfless effort to work in a dangerous situation in support of emergency services, it is possible the fire would have extended into bushland, risking the homes and lives of many families,” Major Ozols said.