A firefighter’s story of heroism in Africa

“It all started from the blog, us just telling ‘hey, there was a crazy accident on our trip,’” says first class firefighter Mark Gatensby.

It is no surprise to hear that the firefighters at station 214 on Meadowvale Road are heroes. They are after all saving lives at every opportunity possible in their job. But one firefighter in particular has been honoured by the Toronto Professional Firefighter’s Association with the Roy Silver Award, an award given to firefighters who exemplify heroism off duty. Mark Gatensby was in Africa on vacation when he was faced with a harrowing ordeal. A tour guide named Joe attempted to fix a faulty door while their caravan was driving down the highway

“When she opened (the door), the wind caught it, and her hand was on the handle and it just pulled her right out. She hit the highway at about 90 km.”

Gatensby and the passengers quickly pulled the vehicle over and rushed to help her out. When they first arrived to her she was unconscious but still breathing.

“She was horribly injured. Prior to (firefighting) I was a paramedic for six years with York region. In all my years doing that and in the years doing this I’ve never seen someone so graphically injured,” said Gatensby.

The situation Gatensby was faced with looked like a scene out of a movie.

“She had a really badly fractured ankle, her knees were pounded in, and her kneecaps had been crushed.

She had gravel stuck in her body all over the place. She was head to toe road rash and blood, and her scalp was split in three different spots, two of which were so big that you could clearly see her skull.”

When Joe woke up she had little recollection of whom she or any of the passengers were, let alone what happened.

“I felt that she would probably die. I really did think that, just because of how grievous her injuries were and how bad her skull injuries were. My biggest concern was either bleeding into the brain, which would kill her, or a brain injury which if left untreated would kill her as well.”

At 150 km from a city and the hospital both ways, Joe’s odds of survival were stacked against her.

The driver phoned the tour office, who guaranteed an ambulance, no sooner than two hours away.

Gatensby knew that would be too long, and convinced the ambulance to meet them half way while they risked moving Joe. Having no supplies, the crew pulled what was around them to make an impromptu stretcher. Using a lunch table and their sleeping mats, they attempted to contain her. But without drugs Joe could not be sedated and thus, in great pain, would not be still.

When Joe was semi contained, the crew realized that they couldn’t safely transport the table inside their truck, and didn’t want to risk further injury by having her lay on the floor of the truck which would vibrate roughly as it went down the highway.

“Luckily after about five minutes an oversized pickup truck came along. We asked them if they’d take us (to the clinic). These guys said no,” said Gatensby as what seemed like a solution quickly fell through.

The drivers reasoned “We’re going to get fired and we need the money from this job, for our families”.
Gatensby didn’t blame them however.

“You got to look at their perspective too. I think for them, they see injured people all the time. (In Canada) people might say ‘sure we’ll help’ but (in Africa) they see that stuff all the time so it’s no big deal.”

Still the crew refused to give up what may have been Joe’s only chance of survival and tried to convince them to cooperate by offering them money.

“In the end I wound up taking the keys from the ignition of the truck and said ‘you guys can either help us or I’m going to throw your keys into the field. We settled on $50 dollars each U.S. and all they were going to do was drive us ten kilometres backwards to the little clinic.”

The drivers accepted, and even showed a compassion that exceeded the crew’s expectations.
“In the end they drove past that clinic and actually drove us 30 km to a better one, so these guys did their part, it just took a little encouragement,” said Gatensby.

When they arrived at the better clinic there were 40-50 locals already waiting for treatment. The clinic was understaffed with one nurse and no doctor. Because of this there was a spare room that was unused, but locked. The nurse had said they could use the room, but she didn’t have a key.

“There was this big huge Aussie Rules rugby player, a big guy named Scott, 280 pounds, 6’7. I said ‘Scott, break in the door,” said Gatensby.

The locals looked curiously at the tourists breaking into the clinic, with Scott ramming his full weight at the door until he finally burst through.

From there they were able to clean Joe up and stop the bleeding. To clean the wounds Gatensby and the passengers cut open IV bags and used them as sterile water. The clinic had no stitches and no medicines.

“We did what we could at the clinic, we cleaned her up from head to toe and got a better look at all of her wounds and at this point she was really shocky. Most of the time she was complaining she was on fire and then she was cold.”

With no medications, all the crew could do was wait for the ambulance to show up.
“The whole time I was still wondering: when is she going to go unconscious and not wake up again?” said Gatensby.

An hour later the paramedic vehicle arrived and hooked Joe up to morphine and monitors. The ambulance made the 120 km trek back to Maun, where they arrived at the hospital. The next day she had been airlifted to a major trauma centre in Johannesburg. Four days after that Gatensby and the crew found out that she would be ok.

Gatensby never heard back from her, and isn’t too surprised at that, noting that she probably doesn’t, and doesn’t want to, remember the horrific incident of that day. It is through a mutual friend that Gatensby has been kept up to date with her recovery.

“The main thing is that she lived and didn’t seem t be too much worse for wear based on her injuries.”
The only reason that anyone in Canada even found out about this was that Gatensby and his girlfriend had kept a blog of their travels and mentioned the crazy day.

“When I got back to Canada the guys (at the station) asked me, so I told them the story in much less detail. Our captain on our crew wrote a letter to the Union for off duty awards. With that letter came a nomination for one of these awards which I was fortunate enough to get.”

Like most firefighters, it’s not about recognition for Gatensby. “It was nice to have the award and good to get the recognition, and find out most of all that she’s going to be fine.”