Wondalga farmer Geoff Purcell fought back tears on Tuesday as he described the final minutes in which his best mate, Dave Harrison, choked for breath alongside him in the front seat of his utility.
In his statement during the formal inquest into Mr Harrison's death at the height of the black summer bushfires in January last year, Mr Purcell told how he had left his exhausted friend at his house to fill up a water tanker attached the back of the utility while he returned to the firefront to try to save his highly distressed cattle.
"We had been down at the house together sitting on the step and I looked back up [at the approaching fire] and said to Dave: 'I can't leave my stock up there to burn; I need to go back up and save my cattle'."
It was a last-minute decision as the pair had already planned to evacuate the property as the swirling mass of smoke and embers descended on the property south-west of Tumut on the afternoon of January 4, 2020.
He described the temperature that afternoon as the "hottest I've felt in my life".
"The oxygen was taken out of the air; I couldn't really breathe," he told the hearing.
Mr Harrison, 47, had arrived at Mr Purcell's property a week before on the afternoon of December 29, a day after the Dunns Road fire had started its rapid progress from out of the Ellerslie Range, where it had been ignited by a lightning strike.
The pair had been close friends since boarding school at Goulburn and Mr Harrison was a frequent visitor to the Batlow Road property.
"He [David Harrison] was part of our family, really," Mr Purcell said.
The pair had done all the preparatory work they could to defend the property, had three mobile firefighting units on hand and on January 3, it appeared that the bushfire had started to run parallel to the property and was headed south, about 15kms away
They rode up to a vantage point on quad bikes and watched it hit a pine plantation to the northwest of Batlow Road. A video was shown to the hearing of what they saw that day as the wind gusted strongly and fire licked fiercely through the plantation.
Yet Mr Purcell said he always felt confident they could escape the fire if they had to.
"We always spoke about it [the approaching bushfire] and what we'd do," he said.
"I told Dave: 'We are in open country, we will be safe'."
Mr Purcell had been a member of the Wondalga Rural Fire Service for 20 years and had experience in fighting mostly grass fires, including one which had encroached on his property some years before.
But this fire, he said, was "something very different".
He described how in the afternoon of January 4, the fire changed its behaviour, "created its own storm and came back at us".
As the fire came over the hill and into the property's top paddocks, the decision was made around 4.15pm to leave. After Mr Purcell set his cattle free, he returned to find his best friend slumped in the front seat of the ute, presumably overcome by the heat and thick smoke.
Mr Purcell said he raced inside the house, pulled the water cooler from its stand and poured the contents over his friend in an effort to cool him down.
Mr Harrison coughed, so Mr Purcell then fired up the ute and headed out of the property, calling triple zero on his mobile phone as he crossed the last cattle grid and phone reception returned.
"He [Mr Harrison] coughed again and a little bit of blood was coming out of his mouth," he said.
"I told him: 'hold on, mate, we're going into town'."
But it was too late. Mr Purcell managed to flag down a police car coming the other way on the Batlow Road. Together they performed CPR on the dying man by the roadside and a group of NSW Forestry workers then arrived to assist. One of the workers said that at the time, the temperature gauge in his car read 47 degrees C.
Mr Harrison was declared deceased at the Tumut hospital later that afternoon. Toxicology results from the the autopsy later indicated the presence of methylamphetamine. Mr Purcell said he wasn't aware that Mr Harrison took the drug, The primary cause of death was determined to be hyperthermia.
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