Catherine Armitage, 30 September 2015

There’s bystander syndrome, then there’s Ivan Smith.

The motel manager in Armidale, northern NSW, was upstairs taking an early afternoon break from cleaning rooms, when he saw a car rocket across the busy road “as fast as you could drive a car” and crash into a petrol bowser at the Caltex service station opposite. The bowser exploded in flames.

Psychologists use the term “bystander syndrome” to describe the disturbing social phenomenon whereby passers-by often fail to help people in emergencies because they assume someone else nearby is more qualified or capable.

That’s not what happened here. With the driver and passenger still stuck in the burning car, Mr Smith was out of his chair, out the door and across the road, yelling at his wife to grab a fire extinguisher.

Mr Smith was slowed down by a passing truck full of hay, while his step-daughter Chloe, filming the action on her phone, can be heard calling fearfully for him to come back.

A barista from the coffee shop next door sprinted across the road and beat him to the driver’s door. The 90-year-old driver, halfway out of the car, yelled: “Save my wife.”

“At that stage we were thinking it could blow up, the flames were very high,” Mr Smith said.

“You have all these negative thoughts, sort of saying, ‘What are you doing?’ As close as you get to danger, they sort of yell out to you.

“But I am a pretty positive thinker … I thought, ‘I’ve got to act quick.’ ”

As Mr Smith dragged the driver away, the barista ran around the car to the 81-year-old woman passenger.

According to Mr Smith, the barista said to her, “It’s time to go now”, scooped her up and ran with her across the cement, where he tripped and fell.

“He was so brave and he was so quick,” Mr Smith said.

The NSW Fire and Rescue station was only 50 metres away so fire officers were quickly on the scene to douse the flames.

The rescued couple were taken by ambulance to hospital with minor injuries.

The video posted to Facebook has gone viral with more than 400,000 views.

A nomination for “recognition of brave acts by certain persons” has been forwarded to a committee of Fire and Rescue NSW, Armidale station commander Wayne Zikan said.

Armidale police have also been inundated with calls for the civilian rescuers to be nominated for bravery awards.

“Regardless of whether any explosion was going to occur, it is still a very brave act by the members of the public who have gone to the aid of the elderly couple, not knowing what was going to happen,” police inspector Chris McKinnon of New England Local Area Command said.

They had “no doubt saved the elderly couple from suffering worse injury”, he said.

His colleague Inspector Roger Best told The Armidale Express it was clear from the video that “some significant recognition is warranted”.

“Those involved clearly placed saving the lives of others above their own personal safety.”

The couple’s son, fitness trainer Drew Woodley, who lives in Armidale, posted a comment on Facebook. “All the people who selflessly risked their own lives for my parents, should receive the highest recognition and awards. We cannot thank you enough.”

Mr Woodley visited Mr Smith to shake his hand, “which was very nice of them, to take the time of day for me”, said Mr Smith.

Mr Woodley told him his father’s “driving days were over”.

Mr Smith said the incident made him proud of his community. A teenager, and “a few elderly ladies” also ran across the road “to grab a foot and I had the arms and legs and we carried them to a grassy spot”.

“We all got together … everyone, the doctors, the fire brigade, the police, it’s sort of like [the couple] were going down the wrong path and the community helped get them back on the right track”.

He said he had a new appreciation for police, fire and rescue workers who risked their lives daily.

A spokesman for Caltex Australia Ltd said the service station attendant on the day had followed safety procedures as trained, by pressing the emergency stop button which prevents any further fuel from entering the bowser and by helping evacuate the site, including making sure no other customers were in the shop or the toilets.

Extracted in full from the Sydney Morning Herald.