11th October 2015 | Cairns Post

EVERY night on August 9, Cairns firefighter Royd Kennedy sits back, drinks a couple of rums and thanks God he’s still alive.

It is a ritual the 61-year-old has been performing for more than two decades.

His name is likely unfamiliar to most in this country, but across the ditch in his native New Zealand, Mr Kennedy’s incredible tale of bravery is one that captured the heart of a nation.

This August marked 25 years since he ran underneath a burning fuel tanker to save the life of a 12-year-old girl trapped underneath.

For an hour he lay beside her, willing her to stay alive, talking to her, promising to take her horse riding if the pair survived the inferno that was blazing above.

“I celebrate living really once a year because I was in a situation where I was looking at certain death for about an hour,” he said.

“Not often you’re thrust into that situation and when you are you don’t know how you’re going to react and no one knows how you’re going to react. It’s called the fight or flight syndrome.

“You’ve got no control over it, your body and your DNA will tell you how to react and mine just told me to react the way it did and that was to go and help another person in need.”

The young girl, Shirley Young, suffered severe burns and had to have put of her leg amputated.

Now 37, she still lives in New Zealand and Mr Kennedy said he last saw her about a decade ago and met her husband and young children.

He moved with his now-wife to Cairns 13 years ago and aside from a brief one-year stint in Qatar, the couple and their two children call Yorkeys Knob home.

He currently heads up the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services training and emergency management unit in Cairns, teaching fire safety to commercial businesses around the region.

Mr Kennedy admits the years have passed quickly and although he’s only four years from retirement, leaving will be tough.

“It feels like it was last week, in fact. I don’t even feel the years now, I still feel like I’m a recruit firefighter because I’m older on the outside, but on the inside, still as vital, still as alive, still as interested, and it’s just like yesterday,” he said.

At the moment he is acting as the inspector of the unit, a position usually held by Michael Beck, one of the two firefighters injured in the Ravenshoe cafe blast.

He said he had spoken with him and Joe Torrisi about the incident and attempted to offer advice from his own ordeal.

“I have used rebuilding my life and rebuilding my inner being and I’ve shared that because some guys can bounce back and some are not so easy to bounce back for good reason, because it was traumatic what they went through,” he said.

“Unfortunately I think with Michael and Joe, the decision wasn’t made for them.

“They weren’t able to make a decision based on their training and judgments and skills, they were just there.”

Mr Kennedy was awarded the George Cross over the incident, which used to be New Zealand’s highest bravery award.

Courage must run in the Kennedy family blood because his 81-year-old mother Lois also claimed the award for trying to fight off a man who attacked her neighbour with a samurai sword.

He is adamant that if placed in the same situation again he would do it again.

“Without a doubt,” he said. “It’s very difficult to give that advice to other firefighters because no one knows what they will or won’t do as trained professionals.

“Many people have said over the years ‘no they wouldn’t have’, which is the burden they have to carry, but in this instance if I wouldn’t have, a life would have been lost.”