Horror of fatal unit fire still haunts firefighter
Peter Cooke remembers the horror he faced when he and his fire crew attended a massive unit blaze where two young women had to jump from the fifth floor to escape, killing one and gravely injuring the other. But then years later, he faced a very similar emergency.
Senior firefighter Peter Cooke knew that for his crew to be called to a blaze 11km out of his area it was "something big".
"We could hear all the radio calls on the way in and we realised this was a pretty serious job," Mr Cooke told The Night Watch.
Just how big would soon become apparent - not only would it make front page news for days to come but lead to major building code reforms.
As Mr Cooke's Fairfield brigade pulled up to the West Terrace apartment block on September 6, 2012 they were confronted with the site of two women literally clinging to the edge of a window five stories above ground as a ferocious fire engulfed their unit.
LISTEN: In 2012, Senior NSW Fire & Rescue Firefighter Peter Cooke attended a massive apartment complex fire in Bankstown where two young women had to jump from the 5th floor to escape. He tells The Night Watch how it unfolded.
As another crew was tasked with fighting the fire, Mr Cooke's team were sent in to rescue the women later identified as friends Yinou "Ginger" Jiang and Pingkang "Connie" Zhang.
"That was a very, very intense fire," Mr Cooke recalled.
"Guys that were on their bellies … they couldn't even get to the front door. It was burning so intensely and railings were melting, elevator doors were melting and stuff in the hallway.
"The wind was passing through an open bathroom door, and then out through the front door.
"So those poor girls were faced with a choice of trying to do that, when firefighters in full gear assists and two hose lines couldn't even get close to the front door, let alone two young girls in civilian clothing."
The women were initially sitting on the edge of the windowsill, but as the fire and heat intensified it is believed they tried to lower themselves down to a balcony beneath them.
As Mr Cooke's crew raced against time to reach the women - an unspeakable horror happened.
"I think it was just getting too hot for them … they just couldn't hold on," he says.
Both women jumped.
Ms Zhang was killed instantly while Ms Jiang suffered horrific, life-threatening injuries and is now confined to a wheelchair.
"Being in that situation, they can feel just what's just around the corner and having to make that choice, when you're sitting there staring five stories down basically onto a rock-hard surface or you can feel what's coming up behind you - I imagine they would have felt quite a lot of pain before they couldn't take it anymore and just decided option B is all I've got left," Mr Cooke said.
In August 2019, Deputy NSW coroner Hugh Dillon had found Ms Zhang's death could have been prevented if the unit block's developer had installed a sprinkler system.
Dying in a fire is something Mr Cooke said he wouldn't wish on his worst enemy.
"I'd rather go a hundred different ways than burn to death, which is odd because I'm running into burning buildings," he said.
"But the idea is to come back out the other side."
Four years after the Bankstown incident, Mr Cooke and his crew were confronted with an identical situation, this time involving people trapped on their balconies as fire raged around them.
Mr Cooke said the sound of the screams was bloodcurdling.
Among those trapped was a mother and her young son.
"It's very intense - when you hear somebody screaming for their life and saying 'I'm burning' - I mean, it's kind of like the movies," Mr Cooke said of the Villawood fire.
"But it has a different sound to it - it's very, very intense and it's hard not to get caught up in it."
With the help of his colleagues, Mr Cooke deployed a ladder and rescued the mother and son before the fire ripped through their balcony.
He counts it as one of the proudest moments of his career and said the job could easily have turned into like what happened in Bankstown.
"We were lucky that we got the call when we did and we got there and managed to get them down, so it was definitely a crisis averted and we were very fortunate to be able to get everybody out of there without loss of life," he said.
"(Bankstown) was just a no-win situation and the guys laid it all on the line.
"Those initial guys on the attack lines, they put themselves right in harm's way. They did the best they could and unfortunately they weren't able to get to them. Unfortunately that's what happens sometimes. We can only do what we can do."
Mr Cooke began his career as a town planner with Bankstown City Council but soon became bored - especially after hearing stories from his firefighter brother. So he decided to become one himself.
"I do enjoy coming to work," Mr Cooke said.
"I know a lot of people get to say that, but I honestly do. There might come a time when I'm getting too old and the body's broken down and what not, but right now I love it.
Originally published as Horror of fatal unit fire still haunts firefighter