Marines rewarded for role in fighting fire
Two US marines have been recognised for their actions in working with ADF colleagues to save houses from a fire that destroyed Puckapunyal Primary School on December 6 last year.
The US Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal was awarded to the pair who had been posted to the School of Armour at the time: Master Sergeant John “Ricky” Farrell IV and Gunnery Sergeant Ryan Accornero.
The award is presented to service members of the US Navy and US Marine Corps (USMC) who have performed commendably in routine duties or for exceptional achievements.
On the Sunday afternoon of the fire, both marines were at the Weapon and Tactics Wing at the School of Armour when they noticed a large smoke plume.
Without hesitation, both got in Gunnery Sergeant Accornero’s car and drove towards the incident.
“We were concerned as Gunnery Sergeant Accornero’s home is less than 200m from the buildings that would’ve been burning,” Master Sergeant Farrell said.
“When we arrived, the school was fully engulfed in flames. The wind was very strong, which was a serious cause for concern because many homes on Alamein Road were at risk if the fire couldn’t be contained.”
This apprehension was shared by Gunnery Sergeant Accornero.
“As we drove, I came to the realisation that not only was this fire far larger than we anticipated, but that its location was near military service members’ houses,” Gunnery Sergeant Accornero said.
Joining three Australian Army members already on scene – Major Matthew Whitwell, Major Johnny Ozols and Warrant Officer Class 2 Bernie Maus – it became clear the fire would soon overwhelm the civilian authorities at the scene.
“At that time there were only four firefighters. I identified from the direction of the wind that there was potential for the fire to jump and spread from the school,” Gunnery Sergeant Accornero said.
“I knew we had to do something.”
The marines provided direct assistance to the Country Fire Authority personnel, replacing expended oxygen cylinders on the firefighters’ breathing apparatus, laying out and connecting additional water hoses and removing debris to allow access for additional fire trucks.
Major Whitwell said the fire was so intense that fire hoses were being burned through or bursting, with ADF and USMC personnel replacing damaged sections with new hose.
“As the fire progressed through the school’s main building, thick black smoke was enveloping us and it became very difficult to breathe and see each other,” Major Whitwell said.
Undeterred, Gunnery Sergeant Accornero assisted Major Whitwell and Major Ozols with a spare water hose and attacked the fire front.
Major Ozols said the marines continued to assist local fire crews and their ADF colleagues for about 45 minutes.
“Without [the marines’] selfless effort to work in a dangerous situation in support of emergency services, it is possible the fire would have extended into bushland, risking the homes and lives of many families,” Major Ozols said.
“Master Sergeant Farrell and Gunnery Sergeant Accorner’s leadership, pragmatism and willingness to risk their safety to achieve an outcome was exemplary and worthy of recognition. It is the clearest demonstration of the shared values of our two nations I have personally witnessed.”
US Major Levi Thompson, Senior Instructor at the School of Armour’s Tactics Wing at the time, said the award was worthy acknowledgement of their actions.
“They reacted to an emergency to ensure the fire did not get out control and cause extensively more damage and/or loss of life,” Major Thompson said.
“I am extremely proud of the actions of both of these marines and their willingness to rush in and help, regardless of their personal safety.”
The incident occurred on Master Sergeant Farrell’s last day in Australia, delaying his return to the US.
He was awarded his medal in a ceremony at the beginning of February in California.
Gunnery Sergeant Accornero was awarded his medal at a ceremony at the School of Armour on May 14 and said, while he was appreciative, he just did was what right.
“The community has become like family,” Gunnery Sergeant Accornero said.
“There has been countless opportunities to mingle with other families through the Puckapunyal and District Neighbourhood Centre and other programs on base, and we have taken full advantage of those opportunities.
“The community is great because of the people in it and that is Pucka in a nutshell.
“I might wear a different uniform and talk kind of funny, but I’m just as invested in this community and every soldier in it as I would be if I was back home with my marines.
“I’m willing to do anything necessary to protect my Australian brothers and sisters, and that is what I did on the day of the school fire.”
Major Thompson said the broader opportunities from posting to the Australian Army’s Combined Arms Training Centre were not lost on the marines.
“This exchange posting offers a unique opportunity for soldiers and marines to work closely with and have a direct impact on the next generation of combat leaders within the Australian Army’s armoured and infantry corps,” Major Thompson said.
“The life experience, relationships formed and the mentoring and development attained while serving in the posting is unlike any other, reinforcing alliances between our two great nations and forging a bond that transitions off the battlefield.”