FAMILY TRAGEDY: Sight that overcame hero truckie
THE fireball in front of Mark was a B-double truck, skidding on its side, tonnes of momentum grinding up the bitumen and dirt.
He braked his own rig hard, jumped out of the cabin, dropped his phone and ran, panic and focus together. He'd seen fatal crashes before. He knew what to expect - and he prepared himself as he ran towards the mangled car, most of its roof torn off.
And that's when he saw it: a child's toy, a zebra, lying in the dirt. When he thinks back to that night, it's the zebra he remembers. The moment he realised he wasn't prepared for what he was about to see.
"This is not the first time I've been first on the scene to a fatality," said Mark, a truckie who travels 250,000km a year.
"So when I'm running towards this car, I'm already totally prepared. I knew this was going to be bad. But on the way to the car, I ran past a little stuffed zebra. And it was like getting hit by … I don't know. I gasped. I heard myself gasp. Because I hadn't attached who was driving to the situation at that stage. It could have been a farmer on his way home.
"It wasn't until I ran past that stuffed zebra that it struck me that there could be kids. So that was the moment. And then, in my periphery, I noticed the scene. And it all came into focus. The teddy bear over there. The kids blankets everywhere. It was kids' stuff. Just kids' stuff."
This was the night Queensland mother Charmaine Harris McLeod and her children Aaleyn, 6, Matilda, 5, Wyatt, 4 and Zaidok, 2, died.
Initially reported as a head-on crash between a car and truck outside of Kingaroy, police would later confirm it was being investigated as a murder-suicide.
Mark won't talk about that moment of impact. That is information he has given to investigators. But there are some things he wants to make clear. The McLeods' car did not immediately burst into flames. That came later, after he'd tried to get them out.
And nobody pulled Ally, the eldest of the four children, out of the vehicle. She had been thrown onto the road when the car she was in torn apart on impact.
Lastly - and importantly - Mark does not agree with reports that the crash happened as Charmaine overtook his vehicle. She had already overtaken him safely and was back in her lane. Whatever caused the crash, happened after that.
The McLeod car was on fire when Mark first ran towards it. Small flames that he thought he could put out. One section he put out quickly with a blanket he'd wet down with water from his truck.
Another fire was deep in the wreckage. He left it. The other truck driver had crawled from his burning rig.
"I saw him scramble out. I went to him, just to see how he was. I was pretty stunned he was moving so quick," he said.
"He was obviously banged around and got some nasty cuts and that on him. (But) whoever was in that car were the ones who obviously needed help. So I said to him, 'I don't want to leave ya. But I gotta get to that car'."
Mark ran back to the mangled car and climbed inside.
"I probably shouldn't have even been in the car," he says. "I didn't like the idea of those children in the car with that fire. There was nothing anyone could do for those children. There was absolutely nothing anyone could do … I just didn't want them in the car."
He made trips back to his truck. Wetting down blankets. Nearly stepping on his broken phone. He thought he'd called triple-0 but amazingly he hadn't. Too shocked and horrified. And all the time he kept seeing that little toy zebra.
At some point he shouted out to the other driver. Was he still doing OK?
"He said: 'is it bad?' I said, 'yes mate, it's bad, but it's all over, there's nothing you can do. Don't be coming down here'.
"Luckily for him he took that advice. He is going to have a nightmare (time). I have no idea who he is or how old he is, he'll have all sorts of struggles if he's human - forever. I'm kinda glad he wasn't anywhere down there."
Mark had tried to get the children out. But then the fuel tank went up, singeing his hair and burning his hand. Later, when the paramedics arrived, he'd ask for some cream to put on it. It embarrassed him to ask for help when people had died.
Minutes passed before someone else came across the crash scene. Mark recalls it being a retired couple. He met them before they got to the car and suggested to the man's wife that she not approach. She took the advice.
The husband helped move Ally from the path of the flames that were now spreading to the grass alongside the road.
"What he did do was start fighting the bushfire that had started. The grass fire," Mark said. "He also found a pulse on Ally. I had been checking periodically for that. There was really not a lot else I can do. You can't start doing compression work on a child with a pulse."
The man had called triple-0 - Mark remembers seeing him on the phone as he approached the crash site.
"The moment emergency services arrived, I got out of it," Mark said. "They're the pros and they need to work."
The little zebra was still there, on the ground. He thought about taking it. A reminder of little children who'd played happily before the horror of a night-time crash scene.
"When my job was over, I had to walk past it back to my truck. I nearly picked it up. I don't know why. But I didn't of course," he said.
Ally died later that night while being flown to hospital.
After Mark was allowed to leave, he went to Brisbane to stay with a friend; a couple of days' recovery. He told his friend about the crash, about the children and the fire - and about the little toy zebra he kept seeing.
And to his shock, his friend mentioned he'd seen one just like it - earlier that day while buying Mark some iced coffee. Mark went out and bought two: one to keep and one to perhaps send to the family.
It's the little zebra and the pictures of Ally, Matilda, Wyatt and Zaidok that Mark finds important now. The photographs of happy, smiling children will hopefully one day replace the images in his mind of what he saw in the car. "I'm not a victim. I'm the least victim in that whole night, trust me," he says.
"That truck driver has got to deal with (what happened), those families have to deal with God knows what kind of horror forever. I have a small 20-minute window to deal with. And I will. It's not something someone can take out of your mind and make it go away."
In the days that followed the crash, Mark, who lives within a national park, spoke to his boss and quit his job. He'd been driving for decades but he'll never drive again.
He's healing the best he can. By spending time with his family and keeping an eye on the animals that visit his property. There's a wallaby he's been watching with a joey in her pouch.
He's called her Ally.