Bernie O’Brien’s wife, Yijun, was the first person to wake to a strange popping sound on Sunday, 6 June.
A fire was burning in the office of their home on Gooromon Ponds Road in Wallaroo, on the NSW-ACT border, and there were eight people asleep inside.
The next few minutes were a blur as Bernie’s daughter and son-in-law, Vanessa and Colin Lamb, raced to wake their children, Abbey, Darcy and Maddie, and Maddie’s boyfriend, Blake Baldwin.
Everyone had escaped except 83-year-old Bernie, who was trapped behind a locked door in the kitchen, just metres away from the fire.
“I’ve got bruises on my arm from banging on the door,” says Vanessa.
Between Vanessa and Colin banging on the door and Bernie frantically pulling at the lock, he escaped.
“He fell forward and we carried him out,” says Colin.
Bernie had burns to his throat, back, hands and face, and a high level of cyanide in his blood from smoke inhalation.
“When I couldn’t open the door, I thought that was it,” says Bernie.
The retired Bernie, who spent his career as a builder in Canberra, has industrial deafness.
“It’s a blessing we live together,” says Vanessa. “I’m not sure dad would have woken up to the fire without Yijun and us banging on the door.”
During the fire, the family was racing against the clock due to the presence of two gas bottles against the house that were ready to explode at any time.
It was four minutes between the time Maddie placed the triple-zero call and when the family was safely together by the farm gate.
They saved four phones, three cars, Vanessa and Colin’s wedding bands, the dogs and cat, but nothing else.
Inside, cherished possessions, including the family’s canary, videos and photos documenting their lives, and academic and sporting memorabilia, perished.
The firefighters determined the fire was started by an electrical appliance in Bernie’s office.
Bernie purchased the block of land with his late wife, Margaret, for about $18,000 in 1969-1970.
He had visited Canberra aged 15, in 1952, with a friend for a holiday and never looked back.
The Wallaroo farm was Bernie’s escape from running a construction business in the city during the week.
Canberra’s London Circuit bridge was Bernie’s first construction project.
He’s also a loved community member and widely recognised for founding the Apex Club in Belconnen.
The farm was also where Bernie was supposed to live out his retirement and has been home to four generations during the past 50 years.
Maddie even learnt to drive on the property, and Vanessa spent her childhood climbing the pine trees that Bernie planted in a bid to start a Christmas tree enterprise.
Bernie also built a racetrack around the house to train his gallopers on, which lent the property its name, ‘Dibetal’ (Late Bid spelt backwards), after his favourite horse.
Bernie proudly says he once won the Peninsula Cup at Gosford.
For years, Vanessa and Colin visited Bernie and Margaret at ‘Dibetal’ every Sunday for a roast.
“Mum would make a fresh sponge cake every time,” says Vanessa.
Finding humour in tragedy, the family says the only thing Bernie came away with from the fire was his underwear – not even his teeth or glasses.
So the next day Maddie went to the shops and purchased the family essentials.
She says the family has been sticking together as a pack ever since.
Bernie and Yijun are currently living with his daughter in Gundaroo, while Vanessa and Colin’s family are in Canberra.
They’ve been approved to move to a six-bedroom house in Canberra soon, where they’ll live together until they decide what to do next.
“Col and I are young enough to rebuild, but it’s too traumatic for Dad and Yijun,” says Vanessa. “We’re just going to take our time to decide what to do.”
The ‘Helping Hand for the O’Brien and Lamb Family’ GoFundMe page has been created to help raise funds for the family until their insurance comes through.