Australia — As 20 people sheltered inside the National Park Hotel in the now devastated town of Kinglake, north-east of Melbourne, Peter Thorneycroft took to the roof.
With flames pouring up the valley and engulfing surrounding buildings, he sprayed water from buckets handed up to him from a trailer to stop falling embers taking hold.
Yesterday, the prime minister, Kevin Rudd, paid tribute to Mr Thorneycroft, 43, in the Australian parliament.
“There in the papers today is the unforgettable picture of him standing calmly on the roof dressed in a pair of shorts and thongs (flip-flops), no shirt as the sky blazed orange around him,” Mr Rudd said.
“The houses opposite the pub had all exploded, the witnesses say, and if Peter hadn’t done what he did the pub would have gone up too.
“Peter says there’s no one who’s heroic, you just do it. Peter Thorneycroft is an Australian hero, he is a genuine Australian hero.”
Tanya Cadman took this picture of Kinglake hero Peter Thorneycroft. Photo: NEWSPIXThe flames swept up through the forested National Park to Kinglake, which has the worst confirmed death toll so far of the bushfire disaster at 35, so quickly that it overtook fire engines speeding to the scene.
They were estimated to have crossed the 18 miles from the other end of the mountain range in about 15 minutes.
As well as 20 people sheltering inside the pub’s cool room, another 400 had taken refuge in the car park in their vehicles, which could easily have exploded if the fire had taken hold of the building.
“It was like a cyclone, like a tornado,” Mr Thorneycroft told local newspapers. “The ground was constantly shaking. It was absolutely deafening.
I was using my torch to get up on the roof. It was just complete darkness.
“I never panicked at all and I was singing to myself.”
The photograph was taken by Tanya Cadman, 41, a local woman sheltering in her Toyota with her son, Kyle, 11, daughter Montana, 8, and Scottish terrier Pippi.
“The houses opposite the pub, they had all exploded,” she told reporters. “A couple of cars in the car park exploded. I thought we were all gone. When I saw him doing that, I felt safer.”
Houses on Glenburn Road down the hill from the pub were left tangled heaps of corrugated iron, the rest of their brick and wood structures totally burned out.
Mr Thorneycroft’s wife Jodie, who had left the village earlier, said her husband had already been suffering an arm injury, with torn and severed muscles. But she encouraged him over the phone.
“He just kept going, ‘everyone’s dead, everyone’s dead’, and I just said, ‘shut up and do what you’ve got to do’,” she said.
Police last night released two men who had been questioned in relation to the deadly bush fires. Locals had reported seeing the pair behaving in a suspicious manner in a bush fire area near Taggerty, north of Melbourne. The men were arrested by police and held for more than nine hours, but were later freed without charge. Police were also investigating a serial arsonist they believe could be responsible for the Gippsland blaze, which killed 20 people.
The government has announced that there will be a national day of mourning to remember the 181 people killed in the country’s worst bush fire disaster. No date for the service has been set.