Two months ago a series of tragic events changed Catherine Head’s life.
Her father died. Then within 48 hours she awoke to find her house on fire. Facing serious respiratory problems, she was taken to hospital and put into an induced coma. Not long after being released from hospital she was involved in a car crash.
Yet Catherine says this is a story of survival and hope – due to a stranger’s helping hand.
It was Warren Lachmund who dragged her out of the flames. And two months after, the pair are set to meet for the first time since the incident at a services ceremony where Warren will be awarded for his bravery.
Here they take us through their account of the house fire and what followed.
In the early hours of August 12 Catherine was ready to take her last breath as she lay on the floor, trapped by fire inside the home she was leasing at Ingleburn.
Before she awoke to the blaze, the last thing she remembered was returning home after collecting her father’s memorabilia, laying it out on the table and eating dinner before falling asleep.
“When I regained consciousness it was dark and I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t know where I was, just that I was trying to suck out oxygen from a crack in front of me. I thought I’d been put into a burning box,” Catherine said last week.
Just as the smoke and fire was about to engulf her she heard a man’s voice on the other side of the crack.
The stranger was Warren, a truckdriver who was driving past the burning house. Without hesitation he raced to the front door and screamed to see if anyone was inside.
“I’m in here but I can’t get out.” Catherine shouted.
Warren’s next movements were fueled by pure adrenaline, he told us last week. “I told whoever was behind the door to get back because I was going to kick it in. And with one kick I banged it open. Fumes and smoke came out and then I saw two arms reaching through.
“She looked like something out of a cartoon – her hair sticking up, and black from the smoke. Straight away I pulled her out and got her out onto the grass. Then I called emergency services and asked her if there was anyone else inside.
“She told me her pets were inside so I went back to the door. Her cat had escaped but she also had other pets – a dog and birds. But when I called for them, nothing came to the door. They had already died by that time.”
He said within two to five minutes, the fire brigade were there along with ambulance services.
“They had to pump Catherine’s stomach because of the smoke. They said she was one breath away from dying.”
He described the experience as emotional and traumatic.
“It was hard to see someone like that and be so close to the fire. I can’t imagine what Catherine has gone through and now she’s lost everything that was in there, including her pets.”
A few days afterwards, Mr Lachmund, of West Pennant Hills, was contacted by police who thanked him for his efforts and told him he’d been nominated for a bravery award.
“I wasn’t expecting to be praised, let alone elected for the NSW Police Commander’s Commendation awards. It was just the right thing to do and I’d hope if I was ever in a similar situation someone would do the same for me and my family.”
The man, 55, said he’s spoken to Catherine a few times over the phone .
“I’ve invited her to the awards. I’m nervous about seeing her because I don’t want to break down in front of her but she said we’d support each other. It’ll be the first time since the fire.”
Catherine said she wanted to thank Warren personally and give him a hug. “I’m just so grateful because not only has he saved me, but my children, so I can look after them. What’s the likelihood someone would stop at that time of the morning and save me?
“Because I had inhalation burns and everything was so badly inflamed, Concord Hospital transferred me to the burns unit and I was induced into a coma for a few days. But as soon as I woke up I was pushing hard to get out of the hospital so I could be around for my children.”
Catherine has five children aged from 10 to 22 and said it was lucky they weren’t there when the fire broke out. The family moved into the Ingleburn home earlier this year in March.
“I also wanted to be able to go back to the house for my dog. The fire brigade told me they wrapped my dog’s remains in a blanket and put her in the first room. But I don’t know what happened to her because when I finally got out the hospital and was permitted to go in, she wasn’t there.
“Roxy was a chihuahua cross Australian terrior. She had a heart of gold. I was very close to her – she was just the most adorable thing in the world. I’m really grateful to have my kids but I’m having a lot of trouble with losing her. The most upsetting thing was I didn’t get to bury her or say goodbye.
“I’ve gone through some tough things in my life and Roxy was always there for me. I can faintly remember a moan coming from her when I was lying on the floor and the house was on fire. That broke my heart.”
Left with little other than her father’s army jacket that she was wearing on the morning of the fire, Catherine is currently living in safe housing and is being assisted by organisations.
“Baptist Care, St Vincent’s De Paul Society and Hume Housing have been amazing. My eldest daughter Seina also set up a GoFundMe website page for us. She set it up when I was in a coma. She was so devastated she didn’t know what to do. But that’s helped us with paying for some small essentials.
“I never got to go to my father’s funeral and the children had to go without me. I was in a coma at the time but I heard he had a nice send off with the police – he was an officer at Liverpool Police. In a way, I felt like his army jacket protected me from the fire. It was like he was there for me.”
“It just seemed like one bad thing after the other has happened. The car I had was the only asset I had left but that got ridden off after a car crash where I was a passenger and we were driving my children to school. And now I’m having problems with real estate agents. At the end of the day, I have my life and my family. No matter how many times I get pushed down, I get back up.”
According to Catherine, a report she received stated the origin of the fire was undetermined. She’s urging tenants and residents to prepare a fire plan which includes all members of a household, even pets.
“My advise for renters is to be insured and also if you suspect anything regarding electricity or an oven, notify the real estate because you have to cover yourself and make sure those smoke alarms work.”
- To donate visit www.gofundme.com/49ewoko