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May 2009
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Policeman rescues children from burning vehicle

Inspector Mike O’Leary is reluctant to call himself a hero after rescuing two young children from a burning vehicle last month and just wants the horror of the experience to fade for him and his family.

Inspector Mike O’Leary

Photo: Warren Buckland, Hawkes Bay Today

Mike, the Eastern District Operations Manager, was returning with his family from the funeral in Auckland of a young family friend who had died of cancer. After getting petrol in Tokoroa they were driving at a comfortable speed behind a people mover.

“As my wife answered her phone, I glanced down for a second,” Mike says. “We heard a boom. Next thing the car in front was going vertical. It went up and came down on its tail, then barrel-rolled down a bank.”

Another damaged car was on the other side of the road following the collision.

“Everything was in slow motion. My mind was already thinking ‘This is a fatal’.”

Mike and his family jumped out of the car and he went into what he calls ‘policeman’ mode. After asking his wife to call 111 and his teenage son Conor to stop traffic to keep the area safe, Mike checked the people in the closest vehicle.

“The driver clearly wasn’t going to make it so I tried to reassure the passenger, who was semi-conscious. Then I heard an explosion from the other car.


“I ran around the side of the car, trying to prepare myself for what I was going to see,” says Mike.

“There were two young kids semi-hanging out the window. It was a relief to find people alive – I finally felt useful. I grabbed the first kid. The other boy was trapped in his belt and had started saying ‘It’s burning me.’ I took a step away momentarily, but then I committed myself to doing everything I could for the boy.”

Another helper Peter Booth gave Mike a knife and he was able to cut the boy’s strap. With the help of Peter and Conor he pulled the boy free.

Mike believes the whole rescue was over in less than two minutes. He then took over talking to emergency services and preparing them for what they would find. “It was only five or 10 minutes after the ambulance and fire service arrived that I realised I had a burnt hand.

“I hadn’t had much road policing experience. While I’ve attended fatalities and unpleasant situations I am usually properly prepared beforehand. This will stay with me for the rest of my life,” says Mike.

“I was so proud of my family. My 13-year-old daughter looked after the little boy and when the ambulance arrived, he didn’t want to let her go. Conor was my wingman.”

Mike had a week off after the accident. He went back to work the week before last, and by the following Thursday was working at the Napier siege.

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