Three volunteer bushfire fighters die trying to save homes and school at Grays Point in 1983

Sutherland Shire experienced one of its darkest hours on Sunday, January 9, 1983, when three volunteer firefighters died at Grays Point.

It was a hot and windy day, with temperatures around 38 degrees, when a tanker from Heathcote bushfire brigade was overrun by fire which swept up Anana Hill in the Royal National Park, near Angle Road.

Brigade captain Keith Campbell, 50, and firefighter Gregory Moon, 20, died at the scene.

Deputy captain Thomas Bielecke, 41, lost his fight for life in hospital the next day.

Six other crew members, including Mr Campbell’s daughter, Sharon, were badly burnt.

The Heathcote crew were among four brigades fighting the fire, which crossed Temptation Creek and was roaring through thick bush, unburnt for 15 years, and heading towards homes and Grays Point Public School.

The firefighters were ordered to withdraw when weather conditions changed, but the Heathcote tanker, which was the last out, found its exit blocked by fire.

To complicate matters, a woman was then spotted further up the hill and had to be escorted to safety.

After a self-defence back-burn operation failed, the crew tried to make another run for it, but their vehicle stalled.

Some could have sheltered in the cabin, but they chose to stick together outside, huddling next to the wheels.

Gregory Moon’s funeral service heard how he was a quiet, unassuming young man, who loved the bush and wanted to work on the land.

Mr Campbell was hailed as a hero, who tried to save his crew.

Mr Bielecke, a former US marine, joined the fire service 15 months earlier after a recruitment drive at Miranda Fair.

A coroner’s inquest was unable to determine how the fire started, but its findings, together with those from the 1980 Waterfall tragedy in which five firefighters died, led to many safety improvements.

Sharon Campbell and another member of the unit, Jim Fowler stayed in the service, but because of their injuries, switched to communications roles.

Ms Campbell, who was 20 at the time of the fire, spent six months in hospital.

In 2010, she told the Leader, the Rural Fire Service was ‘‘like family’’.

‘‘To not do it is harder than to do it,’ she said. ‘‘My dad joined in 1968, so we grew up at the fire station. It was our playground.’’

Mr Fowler said in 2010, “Once you are in it, you realise how brilliant it is. I am coming up for 30 years’ service and two of my children, who were babies at the time, have now been in for 15 years.’’

FLASHBACK FRIDAY

Every Friday we delve into the Leader archives to embark on some time travel.

We will bring you photographs of a news event from 57 years of Leader news coverage that you may or may not recall.

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