CAUTION: Eyewitness and expert testimony to the events that took 25 lives as a result of Black Summer bushfires are very unsettling. The BDN urges caution for readers.
A clearly emotional James Neil gave testimony to the life-saving actions of Cobargo's Ross Rixon during the third day of a coronial inquiry into the Black Summer bushfires on Wednesday.
Mr Rixon, 84, died of a heart attack on January 8 after suffering burns to his face when the Badja Forest Road fire hit Cobargo a week prior, but he has been remembered as "a real Aussie bushy and strong as an ox".
Mr Neil presented testimony to the court that he had woken up a few times through the night of December 30, but praised Mr Rixon for driving to his property "beeping the horn and hollering" which woke him up and gave him time to get away from the fire front.
The two had been friends for about 20 years and lived just a few doors apart when the fires hit on New Year's Eve morning.
"I just packed my car from about 4pm that afternoon ... there was all black soot and ash falling on everyone in Cobargo," Mr Neil said.
"Then the night came I had tea and fell asleep on the lounge. I underestimated it completely."
He said he had woken up and gone to bed, then woken up again to go to the bathroom, stating he could feel the heat and hear a fire, but put a damp towel around his head and went back to bed.
It was like hell, birds were falling out of the sky, it was really bad.James Neil
It was in the early hours of the morning that Mr Rixon drove to Mr Neil's home honking the horn and shouting for his mate to get out.
"I can't smell, so Ross would have probably known that."
Mr Neil described the scene when he got out of the house.
"It was like hell, birds were falling out of the sky, it was really bad.
"[The wind] was just swirling around and coming from every direction, there were big balls of fire ... it was unbelievable."
Mr Neil said he turned left at the highway and helped fight spot fires in town, but was surprised Mr Rixon turned right at the intersection back towards his home.
Mr Rixon's property was entirely destroyed by the fire and he suffered significant burns to his face, but had stoically spoken to neighbours and told them he was "going to the bakery for a coffee".
Mr Neil said he saw Mr Rixon again when he pulled up to the bakery, but was taken aback by his mate's injuries.
"I went to the bakery to get some water and then Ross pulled up, he opened the door and he was very burnt, his hair was all burnt.
"The ambulance came and that was the last I seen of him."
Mr Neil finished his testimony to pay tribute to a friend, describing Mr Rixon as a "tough old bastard, a very hard and honest man."
The NSW Bushfires Coronial Inquiry continues all this week.
If this article has raised concerns for you, help is always available:
- Lifeline 13 11 14 or lifeline.org.au
- Beyond Blue 1300 224 636 or beyondblue.org.au