By Narelle Coulter
It was one of the defining images of Black Saturday – a weary Maryknoll CFA captain Brad Waterhouse slumped on the ground in exhaustion, his head in one hand, after battling to save yet another house from being turned to ash on Black Saturday.
The photograph was published around the world, much to the amazement of his parents, Keith and Meryl Waterhouse.
The 10th anniversary of Black Saturday is bitter sweet for the Bunyip couple, who buried their only son in 2017 after Brad lost his fight with cancer.
They are tremendously proud of Brad’s tireless efforts during and after Black Saturday, but believe the stress and anxiety of what he saw and experienced led directly to his subsequent health problems.
The Bunyip Ridge fire started on 4 February 2009 after a series of lightning strikes. Ferocious winds caused the fire to burst out of the park on the Saturday erasing 24 houses and a factory and burning through more than 2500 hectares.
Initially the photograph caused Brad distress and embarrassment.
“He wasn’t happy about it being taken. He was actually sitting with a number of other people and it was taken from a distance away. He was really embarrassed,“ recalled Keith.
“They had just tried to save a house and he was sitting down getting his breath back. He was very uncomfortable about it.“
It was Brad’s good friend and fellow volunteer Rob Mackie who convinced him that the image was a powerful symbol of the work and sacrifice of all fire fighters who faced the flames on Black Saturday.
The image graced the front page of Who magazine, the Age newspaper and was syndicated around the world.
Brad Noack, a Pakenham friend living in New York, rang Brad to tell him he had seen the photograph in the New York Times.
“He hated that photo,“ said Rob Mackie, a 35 year CFA veteran.
“He was embarrassed. It took a long time for him to accept that it was a representation of the effort everyone put in.
“It kept coming up on Facebook every day, it was in the news, in the media. It still comes up today.“
Rob said Brad was angry that the Labertouche house his crew had fought to save was lost.
“He was on the edge of exhaustion in the photo. He was gutted he couldn’t save the house, even though it was already burning when he got there. He felt guilty and kept blaming himself that he couldn’t save everything.“
The accumulated trauma from Black Saturday as well as the numerous other fires and road accidents Brad had attended during his years with the CFA and Nar Nar Goon Rescue Squad took a toll on the normally outgoing, effervescent father of two.
He began to withdraw from life, visiting his parents less often and leaving projects unfinished.
“He seemed to lose interest in everything. He was building a shed and he just stopped,“ recalled Keith.
“We couldn’t understand why he wasn’t interested in things anymore.“
Added Meryl – “He didn’t visit as often as he used to. He withdrew and that was probably to hide it. If we’d known we could have talked to him more.“
The change in Brad’s personality and usually unstoppable drive and energy also worried his CFA mates.
The day after Black Saturday, Rob Mackie dragged Brad aside and implored him to take a break.
“I told him he needed to slow down, to back off. I’ve been through that stress. I could see the look of exhaustion on his face. I said swap with someone and go and hug your girls.
“He was going to keep going no matter what. He never stopped, it was just go and go and go to the detriment of his health and his business.
“I saw the change and I was worried for him. Eventually there were nightmares and he was screaming at the kids for no reason. His personality changed. That’s when we got him into the CFA counselling program to deal with his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.“
“Going into houses to look for people. I think that upset him a lot. Not that he found anybody, but it was just upsetting,“ said Meryl.
A year into Brad’s therapy, Rob approached Herald Sun cartoonist Mark Knight to draw an original cartoon based on the photograph. A hand reaches out of the smoke toward Brad as he sits on the ground accompanied by the words ’Thanks Mate’.
Brad took the cartoon to show his counsellor who reassured him that the cartoon symbolised his mates trying to look after him.
“Those little things helped him,“ Rob said.
As he was surmounting his mental health problems, Brad faced an even bigger battle – cancer.
Diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer in January 2015, his parents think Brad had been sick for some time but “wasn’t letting on“.
The diagnosis blew Rob Mackie “for six“.
“I drove to the hospital and we had a chat and a cry. I told him that I had had a bad dream last night. I was standing at his funeral delivering the eulogy and crying. I said crying is bad for my image so you’d better get better.“
Shortly after the grim diagnosis, the Maryknoll community rallied to support a Shave for Brad fundraising effort. More than $40,000 was raised in one afternoon.
In 2016 he was given a reprieve and told his was in remission.
“He rang me and said ’I can turn out again’. The joy on his face was amazing. He got his letter allowing him to drive again and went to Tasmania to help with fires there,“ Rob said.
It was the last time Brad would turn out for the CFA.
Cancer eventually spread to his liver, lungs, bones and finally brain.
He died on 9 April 2017 at just 46.
“He was very good at hiding things. It’s only now that you look back we can see,“ said Keith.
“He told us a lot of things when he was dying, a lot of things we didn’t realise. It helped us understand what had been going on.“
Brad talked with his parents about his funeral wishes on the last Christmas Day they spent together.
“He wanted to donate his organs but when he talked to his oncologist he said ’Brad nobody would won’t your organs I’m sorry to tell you’,“ said Meryl, smiling at the memory.
“So then he decided to donate his body to science. We had all the papers filled in and were near the end when it said that at completion your body will be cremated and returned to relatives. He said ’I’m not doing that either. I’ve been trying to keep away from fires’.“
More than 1000 people attended Brad’s funeral at the Cardinia Cultural Centre, including 300 CFA volunteers, who filed past one by one to place rosemary on his coffin.
Rob Mackie’s bad dream became a reality and he gave a eulogy detailing Brad’s CFA service.
He recalled the last camping trip they took together to mountains near Mansfield spending the night “sitting under the stars by a camp fire, talking bullshit“.
“His only regrets were all things he was going do. He kept putting things off as we all do.“
It was Rob who introduced Brad to the CFA.
“Once we got him started we couldn’t hold him back. He jumped in with gusto. He said he liked the idea of being with people who were prepared to get out of bed at 3am and help people they didn’t know. He also liked making friends. It got him into the brotherhood of fire fighting.“
He was always quick to respond to an emergency call, often keeping his parents updated on his fire fighting efforts.
Meryl recalls a fire on Gembrook Road out the front of their former home.
“Brad rang and said there were fires all the way up the road as somebody on motorbikes had thrown out fire lighters. He said ’You’ll be alright stay, don’t move’. About an hour later in comes the fire truck. There were about 10 of them on it. ’It’s alright’ he said, ’we’ve only come to use your toilet’,“ recounted Meryl, laughing.
Meryl recalls a conversation with her son a few days after he was diagnosed.
“I’d say to him we’ll get through this. He’d say, ’Mum I’ve got to. I’ve got two girls to walk down the aisle’. He’s not going to, but he’ll be there though.
“He’s definitely around.“