Humble Geraldton rescuers recognised for saving student’s life

Adam PoulsenMidwest Times
Three years on, Jay O’Sullivan, left, Jessica Varney and Justin Wilson reflect on the rescue of a 17-year-old boy who nearly drowned after being trapped between rocks at a popular Geraldton beach.
Camera IconThree years on, Jay O’Sullivan, left, Jessica Varney and Justin Wilson reflect on the rescue of a 17-year-old boy who nearly drowned after being trapped between rocks at a popular Geraldton beach. Credit: Adam Poulsen / Midwest Times

Teachers Jay O’Sullivan and Justin Wilson were getting ready to wrap up an excursion at a Geraldton beach in May, 2017, when disaster struck.

The pair were supervising a group of 14 Geraldton Senior College students who were bodyboarding off a groyne popular with local surfers.

They decided to let the students catch one more wave. Moments later, a 17-year-old boy became trapped with his arm wedged between two boulders.

“As each wave washed out, the water level would drop enough for him to be able to breathe, and then ... he would be completely submerged for 10-15 seconds at a time,” Mr O’Sullivan said.

“He was basically being tortured,” Mr Wilson added.

While Mr O’Sullivan supervised from the groyne, Mr Wilson repeatedly dived under the turbulent water in a desperate attempt to free the stricken boy.

But his arm — and the rocks — would not budge.

“The first wave that came through when Justin was trying to help basically pin-balled him down the rocks,” Mr O’Sullivan said.

Bruised, battered and bloodied, Mr Wilson struggled on.

Meanwhile, Mr O’Sullivan had called 000 and the school, who sent lab technician and first aid officer Jessica Varney to help.

Ms Varney — a volunteer ambulance officer at the time — also braved the surf, holding the student’s head above water while Mr Wilson continued diving.

Police arrived, and still the pair struggled on as the tide and swell rose.

“Jay kept telling me when there was a wave coming, and I would just brace,” Ms Varney said.

By this point the situation had become dire.

“At one stage when I was down there, he (the boy) did say ‘Jess, I don’t want to die’,” Ms Varney said. “The reality of him drowning was extreme.”

After about 15 minutes firefighters arrived and took over, but even they struggled.

“They do so much training about extracting people from car crashes and that sort of thing where they know exactly what to do,” Mr O’Sullivan said.

“Here, they just didn’t know what to do.”

Another agonising 30 minutes passed before the firefighters finally freed the boy by using an oversized crowbar and a wooden wedge to move the boulders. He was taken to hospital suffering hypothermia and extensive grazes to one side of his body but was otherwise not seriously injured.

“If it was another student, I don’t think the outcome would have been as positive. He’s a pretty tough kid,” Mr O’Sullivan said.

Ms Varney said the rescue was “a huge community effort”.

“Every person that was there played a pivotal role in the rescue,” she said.

On Thursday, March 28, Ms Varney and Mr Wilson were named 2019 Bravery Medal recipients and, along with Mr O’Sullivan, were cited as part of a Group Bravery Award.

All three said they did not consider themselves heroes.

“It’s a little bit cliche, but we were just doing our job,” Mr O’Sullivan said.

“Something happened that was quite terrible, but it’s our job to make sure the students are safe and they come back to school at the end of the day.

“So to get an award for that is pretty cool, and it might be something to tell the grandkids about.”

Group Bravery Award recipients Benjamin Clune, David Geqwin, Damien Gilbert, William Gillespie Harp, Matthew Merritt, David Parkin and Christopher Worthington were also acknowledged for their involvement in the same rescue incident.

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