4:30pm, 10th September (almost 1 month later). Rescue
Rain streaked down the car window, preventing Max from seeing much of anything outside. Not that it mattered. There was nothing to see anyway. They were on the freeway, elevated above the suburbs of Brisbane, but instead of cruising amidst a steady flow of traffic, the entire Team Max convoy was stationary and had been for at least the last ten minutes. If Max could see outside, he knew that all he would see is a car park.
Sitting on his lonesome in the back of the central van, he occupied himself with only his thoughts. Max had just completed another public training session and was on his way home to the island estate via the airport. Elsa and the kids had stayed home this time and Kris had headed off to see her parents and brother. Max hated being apart from his family, even for only a couple of hours, which this trip was meant to be, but now with the freeway as mobile as a blocked artery, it was going to be even longer.
Then Peter’s voice sounded over the internal speakers in the cabin. ‘We got a multiple car accident up ahead,’ he said. ‘Eye in the sky thinks there might be someone trapped in one of the cars too. Could be here a while. If you want, we can call the chopper in and air lift you direct off the freeway?’
Max thought for a moment and then replied. ‘No. Not in this weather with all these people about. It’s too risky.’
‘Want me to dial up Elsa and tell her we’ll be late?’ Peter asked.
Max thought again for a moment and then asked, ‘Are the fireys or paramedics on the scene up ahead or are they stuck in traffic just like us?’
‘Let me check,’ Peter said and then a minute later returned. ‘Looks like there’s one fire truck on site with another struggling through the traffic jam a kilometre behind us. No sign of any paramedics. I’d think about that air lift, Max. This isn’t going to get sorted out in a hurry.’
Max pondered a little more and then said, ‘Get Elsa on the line and patch it through to my headset. I’m going for a walk.’
‘Not sure that’s a good idea, mate,’ Peter said as casually as he could. ‘What’s on your mind?’
‘Time for some air,’ Max replied as he grabbed his training bag and pulled out his training headset and a white cap.
Retying his laces to make sure they were firm, Max then moved across and reefed open the sliding door. A grey veil of streaky rain filled the opening. Beyond it sat three lanes of stationery, smoking cars. Stepping out of the van, Max looked at the bright orange Team Max Land Cruiser directly behind his van and watched three of his security detail step out into the rain, their spray jackets concealing whatever weapons they carried underneath.
Turning the other way, Max found another matching orange Land Cruiser in front with two more security personnel already on the bitumen next to it. Then the front door of his own van swung open and out hopped Peter, minus the customary sun glasses. Peter looked directly at Max.
‘Any chance,’ Peter started, ‘I can convince you to get back inside?’
Max put on his cap and then slipped his headset over the top. ‘Sorry, mate,’ he said, shaking his head.
‘I know where you’re going,’ Peter added, ‘and while I think it’s swell you to want to try and help out up there at the crash, we should leave it to the experts.’
Don’t worry, mate. It’ll be fine.’
Peter looked around as the rest of his security team converged on them, forming a tight cluster amongst the stranded traffic. ’Max, the saviour of the world doesn’t just go for a walk through a jammed freeway and not cause a scene. Especially when you’ve still got your orange shoes on and a six person security detail surrounding you. This is not just a walk.’
Max also took in the surrounds. Peter was right. He was already dragging attention in like a fishing trawler. Every car window in sight was wound down with faces gawking out. The camera flashes too had already started, the gloomy conditions not deterring anyone. Max knew that in minutes, his walk would be all over the internet. He turned back to Peter.
‘Well, let’s get on with it. After you,’ Max said, gesturing forward with his arm.
Peter eyed him off from beneath a furrowed brow and nodded. Quickly he barked some commands to his team and they set off. Two of Peter’s team led the way, followed by himself, then Max and finally the last three of his team. In a tight single file, the group made their way down the dotted line separating the adjacent lines of stopped cars.
From his headset, Max heard a phone number being dialled and then a ring tone. A few seconds later, Elsa’s voice sounded.
‘Hey, honey,’ Elsa said sweetly. ‘Whatcha doing?’
‘Trying to get home.’
‘Be a lot faster if you got back in the van.’
Max kept walking, but baulked in replying. Clandestinely, he flicked his gaze skyward. ‘How do you know I’m not in the van?’
’I’m already on Facebook?’
‘TV too. Live feed. You know, it’s not fair that every time you get ants in your pants, you drag Peter and his team out to chase after you?’
‘They love it,’ Max said as he noted the now steady stream of camera flashes around them. ‘Makes them feel important.’
’They are important, dear.’
Max nodded as he watched Peter’s lead team members push a person back into his car and close the door on him.
‘Yeah. Sorry,’ he replied. ‘You’re right. I shouldn’t be flippant about that.’
’What are you doing anyway? It’s not really the place for a walk?’
‘There’s an accident up ahead. The fireys are on site and I figured I could take a back seat and get stuck here for hours away from you and the kids or I could go lend a hand and maybe speed things up a bit.’
A pause on the other end. ‘Ok,’ Elsa finally said. ‘You do what needs doing. We’ll make sure dinner doesn’t go cold.’
‘Thanks, honey. Knew I could count on you.’
‘You’re a good man and I love you.’
‘I know. I’ll see you soon. Bye.’
The line went dead. Max looked in front. People were now out of their cars and filling the gaps between the vehicles, waiting for him to pass by. The shouting and camera flashes were constant and Peter’s team were working much harder to clear a path. Over the tops of the heads, Max could see the fire truck up ahead, its red and blue lights flashing on top of the cab, the rain making the colours sparkle.
A few minutes later, Peter’s team broke through a thick ring of bystanders to step out into a clearing in the middle of the multi-lane road. The freeway at this point had elevated to three storeys off the ground to cross over a major urban arterial below. Up here the wind had also picked up and despite the slight chill, Max felt no discomfort, his sleeveless, full length black training compression suit, white cap and orange shoes all he had on.
The centrepiece of the clearing was a mangled mass of steel, rubber and broken glass. Three cars had come to grief, clearly while at high speed. Rain diluted oil and petrol coated the bitumen all around, giving the ground a greasy look and filling the air with a petrochemical reek, but none of this deterred the firemen on site.
Four of them crawled all over the wreckage, the pouring rain not slowing them down as they shouted orders and instructions to each other. Two other firemen crouched off to the side, administering first aid to two semi-conscious people laid out on blankets.
Amidst the chaos, another distinct human sound rang shrilly out. Screams. Max lowered himself down onto his haunches and peered into the darkness inside the twisted pile of junk. The persistent flashing of the fire truck’s lights lit up a face.
Deep inside the wreckage of the middle car, a young girl hung upside down, screeching uncontrollably. All Max could see was her face and the blood streaming down it. The purpose of the four firemen working the wreckage was now clear. Free the girl and do it quickly. All four men pulled, clawed and tore at the steel with hammers, cutters and their gloved hands. It was desperate stuff and from Max’s viewpoint, it looked dire.
Casting a quick glance around the ring of bystanders, Max noted that the crash itself was no longer the centre of attention. He was. All eyes had turned to him. He could even see a few hopeful people holding out notepads and pens for autographing. Max clenched his fists. He had not come down here to turn the situation into a circus. He had come to help.
None of the firemen had noticed Max and his security detail’s arrival, so Max walked across to the two firemen attending to the injured people off to the side. One of the men sensed movement and looked sideways to find two orange shoes. He then flicked a look up and found the rest of Max. After a full two seconds of his brain registering the image, the fireman’s eyes widened.
‘Chief?’ he called out. ‘Look at this!’
Max turned back to the wreckage and watched as one of the firemen, who was bent over and attempting to lift a twisted piece of steel, turned without straightening. He squinted through the rain and similarly to his colleague, after a few seconds’ cogitation, realised who he was looking at. Releasing his grip on the wreckage, the Fire Chief jumped down to the bitumen and walked over, finger pointing at Max.
‘Tell me you’re not just a Max groupie?’ he shouted.
‘I’m not just a Max groupie,’ Max replied, stepping toward him. ‘It’s really me. We got caught in the jam like everyone else and seeing as your buddies are still aways back down the road, I wanted to see if there was anything I could do to help?’
The Fire Chief stood and thought for a moment, his composure astonishing amidst the screaming, the rain and hundreds of onlookers now surrounding them. Then he nodded.
‘Maybe there is something you can do,’ he said. ‘Come with me.’
Max followed the chief as he turned and led him around to the far side of the wreckage. Peter and his team hurriedly moved with them, trying to keep an unbroken shield between Max and the surrounding crowd. The chief stopped and Max stepped up next to him.
‘Our hydraulic tools aren’t working and we can’t wait for the other crew to get here to help,’ the chief started. ’This girl’s in a bad way and we’ve got to get her out now, but all we’ve got are our manual tools and our bare hands.’
‘So what do you want me to do?’ Max asked, inspecting the wreck.
‘We need to lift her car about three feet higher to clear her door of the wreckage next to it and get it open, but the car obviously weighs a tonne and we can’t get enough hands around this bit of chassis here to lift the thing,’ the chief said, putting his hand onto a crumpled part of the rear of the girl’s car. ‘There’s only enough space for one set of hands.’
As he finished his explanation, the chief looked up at Max, his meaning crystal clear.
Max held his hands up. ‘They’re all yours’, Chief.’
A grim smile lined the fireman’s face. ‘Put these on, mate,’ the chief ordered as he took off his own gloves and handed them over. ‘I’ll get a spare set and get the boys organised.’
The Fire Chief turned to jog back around the mass of twisted junk, but then stopped and turned back.
‘Max, we don’t get this girl out now, she dies,’ the chief said, his eyes hollow and dark. ‘You really think you can lift this thing?’
Max’s eyes gleamed blue steel in return, his gloved hands clenched by his sides. ‘Get your boys ready to open that door.’
The chief nodded silently and turned away to start jogging again. Max watched him go and then looked down at where he was going to grip his hands onto the steel. Off to the side, but not far away, Peter stood mute, transfixed by the transformation Max had undergone. He had seen it many times already, but it never failed to stun him.
Instantly, Max could go from calm and relaxed to pure, lethal purpose and right now, Max was all purpose. He radiated it from head to toe. His entire frame was taut and cocked, but fully controlled. Peter had never, ever seen anyone or anything like it.
A shout from the other side of the wreck dragged Peter’s attention away. Max also looked up and he found the Chief with three of his team all standing by the blocked driver’s door of the girl’s car. Her screams had become weaker. Time was almost out.
Even the crowd sensed the heightened urgency. They had become restless. The camera flashes were incessant. The shouts of encouragement even louder. Peter’s team were really starting to struggle to hold the crowd back from pushing in to where Max stood. Something had to be done, right now.
‘Ready, Max?’ the chief shouted.
Max half squatted and gripped the piece of chassis with both hands, squaring his feet up on the bitumen as he did, the soles of his feet scratching and crunching. The wet steel was slippery in his gloved fingers, but his hands gripped the wreckage like twin vices, clamped and firm. Then without looking back at the chief, Max’s eyes fixed level and unseeing on the wreckage in front of him.
‘Ready!’ he called back.
‘Lift!’ the chief yelled.
Max’s focus instantly drew inwards. While he remained aware of the world around him, it faded into the background. The rain softened. The shouts of the masses dulled. The screams of the young girl drifted away. Inside himself, Max searched for energy and like turning on a switch, he found it.
Power ripped through every molecule of his body like a mass of unleashed lightning bolts. Energy surged out from his core to every point in his being. Through the taut mass of muscles in his legs and down to the soles of his feet flat on the rain-soaked bitumen. Up the length of his bunched back and along his arms to the tips of his fingers as they gripped the steel through his heavy gloves. Even into his eyes as they blazed brilliant blue in the gathering gloom, and then Max lifted.
Grinding steel screeched and unbroken glass popped as the mangled chassis started to rise, Max’s brute strength forcing it to come clear of the ground. The four firemen screamed encouragement. The throng of onlookers raised a supporting roar. Only Peter looked on silently, his awe overwhelming him.
The wreckage continued to rise higher. The cheering rallied even more, but Max heard nothing. All his focus fixed on every straining muscle, tendon and sinew in his body. He could feel the bite of the steel through his gloves. He could feel the unforgiving hardness of the bitumen beneath his feet. He could especially feel the weight of the wreckage trying to drive him through the ground as it begrudgingly rose upwards.
‘One more foot, Max!’ the chief shouted. ‘One foot higher!’
Max’s awareness plucked the chief’s voice out from the background. He knew he was close to success, but Max also knew that if he dropped the wreckage now, it could injure the young girl even more and maybe even kill her instantly?
Upwards Max drove, his thighs and back as rigid as the steel he gripped. Inch by painful inch he lifted, adrenalin coursing through his system like a wildfire. Life for Max was all about right here and right now. He had to give the best of himself to save the girl.
The chief’s wide eyes stayed glued to the rising edge of the car door. Slowly, it crept up. He held a simple pocket knife in his left hand, ready to cut through the seatbelt when he needed to. Beside him, his three colleagues also stood transfixed on the rising car door. Time slowed as their sights tunnelled in. Then it happened.
‘It’s clear!’ the chief yelled. ‘Pull!’
Simultaneously, all four firemen reached forward to grab the frame of the car door and pull it open. Their combined strength went even further as they ripped the entire door clean off its hinges, the battered hunk of steel flying away from the wreck to slide to a halt some distance back. The chief lunged forward and with his pocket knife, he cut the seat belt away.
The firemen reached desperately into the wreck to catch the girl as she fell clear. As a team, the four men quickly, but gently, extricated the young girl out of the darkened interior of the wreckage and out into the grey drizzling rain. Feverish applause filled the air.
‘We’re clear, Max!’ the chief shouted. ‘Let her go!’
Suddenly, the world flooded back into Max’s life. Unclenching his vice like grip and pulling his hands away, the steel crashed back to the road, screeching and squealing like a thousand finger nails scraping down a black board. Stepping back, Max watched the twisted pile settle uncomfortably back onto the bitumen, making sure no errant pieces of shrapnel came flying out.
Then he heard the chief’s voice coming at him. ‘You did it!’ the fireman shouted as he jogged over, a massive grin across his face. ‘You, son of a bitch, you did it!’
Max slid his gaze up from the wreck to take him in. The flash of cameras was eye popping, the intensity lighting up the entire scene. The chief reached Max and clapped his hands down hard onto his shoulders.
‘You, bloody legend!’ he shouted. ‘You’re a hero!’
Max held his gaze on the chief for a moment and then looked over the man’s shoulder to where the young girl was already having first aid bestowed upon her as she lay on the petrol slick asphalt. She was alive and that was all that mattered.
‘You’re a hero, Max!’ the chief persisted, taking his hands off his shoulders. ‘I can’t believe you actually lifted that thing!’
‘I’m no hero, chief,’ Max said as quietly as he could in the surmounting din, while looking down to watch his own hands remove his gloves. It’s not about me.’
From where Peter stood, he could see and hear the entire conversation. Silently he listened in. Max’s quiet, controlled tone rang out in sharp contrast to the fire chief’s exuberance. Max’s reverse transformation was complete. Instantly, he had changed back from all purpose to pure calm.
‘What do you mean, it’s not about you?’ the chief shot back. ‘I’ve been at this job for over twenty years and I’ve never seen anything like that! That was real hero stuff!’
Max looked up, his eyes blue and piercing. ‘It was team work,’ he said simply. ‘That girl doesn’t get to live without all of us doing our bit. On my own, she dies, but with you and your team, she lives.’
The chief’s smile softened a little as he took in the words. Max continued.
‘Tonight the headlines will probably be all about me,’ he said, ’but I know better. I stood here and watched you guys pull that girl out of there. You’re as responsible as I am and as for me being a hero, no way. I’ve helped save one life. You guys save lives every day. You’re the heroes. I can’t wait to go home and tell my kids I got to hang out with a bunch of fireys today. They’re going to love that.’
The chief was speechless. Peter could see him searching for words and failing. Then Max held out a hand and the chief looked down at it, still dumbfounded. Then, after a long pause, he clasped Max’s hand and looked back up into his gleaming blue eyes. The flash of cameras broke out afresh, capturing the moment forever.