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Heading south on Boxing Day with the conga line of traffic out of Sydney, the cars came to a standstill just outside of Bendalong on the south coast. My friend and I got out of the car, as it was clear we weren’t going anywhere.
Little did we know not far down the road a single mother of three called Lisa Elmas, from Narrawallee on the south coast, was attending to a dreadful head-on collision on the Princes Highway. Elmas, 44, a former hairdresser who now works in disability services, was one of the first drivers at the accident scene.
She stopped the traffic and went into action immediately to take Annabelle Falkholt, 21, and her actor sister Jessica Falkholt, 28, out of the car wreckage. She yelled for help, asking if anyone had fire extinguishers to put out the flames, and scissors to cut the survivors out of their seatbelts. She put her own life at risk to drag the two girls out of the car before it exploded.
Emergency workers told her it was thanks to her efforts they got to hospital for a chance at survival. Tattooed on her arm is the word “resilience”. Perhaps this and the years she spent in the army helped her know what to do.
A few kilometres up the road, my friend was handing out home-made rocky road to the fellow drivers around us as we all got out of our cars as the rescue vehicles flashed past. As the helicopters zoomed overhead to the accident scene, mothers wheeled their babies in strollers, pet owners took their dogs out of back seats for a walk, kids scootered past or headed bush to relieve themselves.
Suddenly out of the sardine tins called cars, we all dropped the heavy sighs at the hold-up, and the regret of stopping for coffee in Berry. We knew this was serious, even if we didn’t then know the details. It was only later, when we arrived at our destination, Narrawallee, and met the reluctant heroine Elmas, that we learnt the details of the three deaths.
While two young women fight for their lives, I can’t help but think of the rocky road for them and their families. But also the people like Elmas, and the emergency workers attending accidents every holiday season. How many sleepless nights they must have, traumatised by what they witness. How many of us would know what to do if we were in the same position? Who carries a fire extinguisher in their car? Even a first aid kit?
Surely that is one of the things “Operation Safe Arrival” could teach us all. Instead of wringing our hands at the high number of road deaths this year, surely every driver needs a refresher in CPR. And to have the courage to reach deep within like Elmas, and be unafraid to try to help.