‘You guys saved my life’

Tamra Carr and Peter SweeneyGeraldton Guardian
Daniel Stewart, second left, nearly drowned at the rocks near Dome in 2016. He reunites with the teachers that helped save him: Justin Wilson, Jess Varney and Jay O'Sullivan.
Camera IconDaniel Stewart, second left, nearly drowned at the rocks near Dome in 2016. He reunites with the teachers that helped save him: Justin Wilson, Jess Varney and Jay O'Sullivan. Credit: Tamra Carr, The Geraldton Guardian

A few days before he nearly drowned three years ago, then 18-year-old Daniel Stewart was in hospital after crashing his go-kart.

The same nurse saw him in hospital on both occasions.

She had to laugh, telling Mr Stewart, “you don’t have to keep hurting yourself to get my number”.

The then disaster-prone apprentice, now 20, has not been swimming since his near-death experience at Geraldton foreshore on May 5, 2016, when his life nearly ended after his arm was trapped between boulders during a school outing.

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Mr Stewart recently caught up with the three Geraldton Senior High School physical education teachers — Justin Wilson, Jessica Varney and Jay O’Sullivan — who helped save his life.

The trio reflected on the trauma of watching a student go — and stay — underwater.

Ms Varney, with experience as an ambulance officer, said she had gone immediately into “regiment-mode” and made her first priority keeping Mr Stewart calm, while Mr Wilson jumped in the water to try and free the trapped arm.

Mr O’Sullivan watched for oncoming waves, to warn helpers when they could be forced underwater.

About 15 or 16 other children watched on, terrified and some traumatised.

“It was crazy, you know we had only just watched the movie 127 Hours (about a trapped mountaineer who amputated his arm) in English class,” Mr Stewart recalled.

“There was actually talk of me having to run into the Dome and get a knife,” Ms Varney said.

“I think it was DFES (Department of Fire and Emergency Services) that said it was the worst incident they had in about 30 years, because it involved a kid.”

After the teen spent about an hour gulping around six seconds of air at a time, first responders were able to free him with a crowbar.

He was treated for hypothermia and gravel burns and still has numbness in his left hand.

“It’s amazing that he came out of it not suffering bigger injuries,” Ms Varney said.

“If it had been another student ... just anyone that wasn’t able to keep as calm as Daniel or was too panicked and took that one breath underwater ... I’m not sure they would have made it.”

Mr Stewart has bumped into his teachers, one of whom is a family friend, a handful of times since his near-death experience.

Though the incident “hit him” a few months later, he said he did not think about it too much.

But every now and then, he remembered the three teachers that “saved my life”.

Last Friday, the Geraldton teachers were formally acknowledged as heroes.

The trio met WA Governor Kim Beazley at a recent investiture ceremony at Government House, where they were celebrated alongside other civilians who have made an outstanding contribution or performed a significant service for the community.

The former deputy prime minister described it, particularly the bravery awards, as an “enormously moving occasion”.

Police and firefighters who were involved in the 2016 incident have previously had their contributions acknowledged in separate award ceremonies.

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