Anthony's lifelong habit of saving strangers, all on a volunteer's wage

Anthony Turner's lifelong habit of saving strangers, all on a volunteer's wage

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Anthony Turner once swam into seaweed to disentangle a human corpse and bring it to shore. In 1994 he spent an entire night plucking medical evacuees from cut...

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Anthony Turner once swam into seaweed to disentangle a human corpse and bring it to shore. In 1994 he spent an entire night plucking medical evacuees from cut-off national parks communities in an inflatable boat, as bushfire crept towards them, leaving no other way out. More recently he has shone a torch into the murky hull of a sunken boat off Bulli, hoping - and at the same time not hoping - he would find a missing 5-year-old boy presumed drowned.

The 48-year-old has spent all his adult life involved with the ebb and flow of emergencies that are part of surf life saving. But his most recent role, as Surf Life Saving Illlawarra's duty officer, ensures he is at the pointy end of most if not all of them.

The role comes with an emergency phone that can ring at any hour of the night or day, most often on public holidays and weekends. There are others who get the calls, but Turner seems to have a knack for being the one on the spot.

Last month, in a field of 76,000 members, he was awarded the President's Medal at SLSNSW's Awards of Excellence.

He has built a reputation for knowing the key issues and getting the job done without fuss or fanfare. He does this on top of another significant volunteer role - deputy captain - with Austinmer Rural Fire Service. When those unpaid hours are done he works as a nurse in a dementia facility.

Turner was 15 when he became a lifesaver. He thought it was a piece of paper being pressed into his hand as he stood dripping on the promenade of Thirroul Beach one morning in 1988, after pulling off his first rescue.

He had gone to his local beach for a swim and found himself strangely alone on the sand when an elderly man and his two grandchildren got caught in a rip and were dragged out to sea.

Out on the water, the old man urged Turner to leave him, to use all his might and skill to get the two children safely to shore.

Turner was Thirroul club's surf lifesaver of the year in 1993/94. Picture: supplied

Turner was Thirroul club's surf lifesaver of the year in 1993/94. Picture: supplied

But 15-year-old Turner told him how they could all make it in together, if they just took a while to regain their breath and their strength. "We don't leave anyone behind," he said.

They bobbed together for about 15 minutes. Still the beach remained frustratingly empty of anyone who might help.

Then Turner made the difficult paddle to shore, with the man on his board, the little girl on top of him and the rested boy able to swim while Turner kept a nervous eye on him and wondered, "am I doing the right thing?".

The old man needed oxygen back on shore, but later he found Turner and, with a handshake, pressed what turned out to be a $20 note into his palm.

"I said, 'mate, I don't do it for this'. But he was so adamant," said Turner. "They walked away; they were happy. It was something so powerful for a young person, to have so many lives to look after."

Turner doesn't know how many lives has has saved since then, or how many hours he has clocked up volunteering.

He has rescued divers, snorkellers, swimmers, kite surfers, hang gliders, surfers, boaters and the occasional sea turtle.

Turner, as crewman, and his driver and brother Andrew are shot into the air during an IRB carnival in Manly. Picture: supplied.

Turner, as crewman, and his driver and brother Andrew are shot into the air during an IRB carnival in Manly. Picture: supplied.

He was born at Coledale Hospital, the first of three sons to dad Barry, a Telstra technician and mum Zanne, a secretary.

He was a relative latecomer to surf lifesaving because the boys' childhood was taken up with other activities, including Scouts, but once he and his brother Andrew, in particular, discovered the thrill of racing inflatable rescue boats for Thirroul Club, he was hooked.

The brothers travelled around Australia for competitions, collecting state and national medals. Turner became ensconced in the Surf Life Saving movement's fabled brotherhood.

Turner's long-time friend and Austinmer RFS captain, Gareth Fleming, describes him as a quiet professional who gives an extraordinary amount - even by volunteer standards.

Turner, pictured with a grateful Lachlan St, Thirroul resident, was one of four Austinmer RFS volunteers to receive bravery awards for pulling people to safety when floodwaters inundated their homes in August 1999.

Turner, pictured with a grateful Lachlan St, Thirroul resident, was one of four Austinmer RFS volunteers to receive bravery awards for pulling people to safety when floodwaters inundated their homes in August 1999.

"He just always makes himself available," he said. "He'll do firefighting one day, then the next he's doing surf lifesaving, or he'll even do both in one day - and that's all for free. He'll always be the one up the front leading the charge. He's just so dedicated."

Fleming knows Turner well enough to know there have been a few times when he has had to step away in order to recharge - when one tragedy has left him unable to immediately face another.

"The poor bugger - sometimes he's seen some things at work, then turns up to a fire and sees more. He says, 'not available, sorry', and you sort of leave it, knowing he's done something else.

He just goes quiet, but then we'll talk about it later. You just leave him, then we'll got have a beer and have a talk. There's always that support for us, in a group."

Turner's award honour comes in the wake of one of the biggest search and rescue operations of his lifesaving career, this one a double tragedy.

Turner is winched into the Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter during a 1999 training exercise off Wollongong. Picture: supplied

Turner is winched into the Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter during a 1999 training exercise off Wollongong. Picture: supplied

He was cooking dinner just after 6pm on June 6, during the Queen's Birthday weekend, when his two teenage daughters told him his emergency phone was ringing.

He bolted to Bulli Point, where passers-by had reported hearing voices calling for help out at sea.

No one knew if the stricken were swimmers or fishermen. Soon it was confirmed that several people, including a five-year-old boy, were in the water with an overturned boat.

An ambulance helicopter crew winched two men to safety, including the boy's father. But the boy and another man, 28-year-old Sadallah El Kourouche, remained missing.

There were so many mixed emotions. It must have felt like an eternity to them. It's extremely sad, but at the end of the day it provided closure for the family, because some people never get found. They could put them to rest.

Two choppers, multiple boats and scores of emergency services rushed to the site, including some of 75 surf life saving volunteers who would play a role over the next day and a half.

With the chopper low on fuel, Turner was granted special permission to take an inflatable rescue boat (IRB) out at night.

The emergency unfolded on the hidden rocky outcrops of Peggy's Reef, where waves were liable to break from many different directions.

Turner and his crewman, Lachlan O'Grady knew this patch of ocean well and knew to take a wide birth or risk ending up like the stricken boat.

Emergency services at Bulli Point on the night a fishing boat overturned.

Emergency services at Bulli Point on the night a fishing boat overturned.

Early in the rescue Turner heard a man's voice calling "help". But the voice grew fainter, then silent.

They dropped dye packs into the water to see which way the missing two may have gone.

A marine rescue crew found the missing boat, a metre and a half of it protruding from the water, bobbing strangely as if it were caught on something.

Turner and O'Grady moved cautiously until they were up against it, and banged on the hull. They shone a torch down inside, but saw nothing.

Police later towed it away and found the little boy, Mohamed Ali Laalaa. He had been trapped when the boat overturned. The search was called off at 11.20pm.

Turner's daughters were waiting up for him when he got home. They hugged him and told him he made them proud.

He snatched about four hours' sleep and woke to his phone ringing hot early the next morning, as efforts to find Mr El Kourouche resumed.

Crew aboard a Marine Rescue vessel found his body about 1.10pm, in waters off Corrimal.

Throughout the search, Turner remembers his surf lifesaving "second mother" Maree Caldwell frequently inquiring about whether he'd eaten.

There were lengthy debriefing sessions, including informal ones, over rounds of free drinks put on at Ryan's Hotel in Thirroul when it was all over.

Turner says it he felt he felt well-supported by the movement and by his fellow volunteers.

But he admits he "sort of fell in a heap" on the Monday, when it was all over. He had been present when Mr El Kourouche's family was told his body had been found.

"There were so many mixed emotions. It must have felt like an eternity to them. It's extremely sad, but at the end of the day it provided closure for the family, because some people never get found. They could put them to rest."

The Illawarra has been recording year-on-year increases in visitors to its beaches. Like all surf life saving clubs, the region struggles to find enough volunteers to fill its roster.

Turner expects visitor numbers to skyrocket this year due to COVID-19 restrictions, which will likely feed people's desire for a day out, not too far from home, not affected by border closures or too costly for families who may have lost work due to the pandemic.

In a good season, everyone gets to go home safely and live the rest of their lives. But Turner knows better than anyone that good seasons don't just happen; they are made to happen, one call at a time.

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