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Sliding door moment turns truck driver into life saver

A fuel delivery driver’s decision to suddenly alter his route meant the difference between life and death for an elderly man stranded in outback Australia


When truck driver Michael Thompson made a decision last December to alter his route due to approaching rain from the east, it proved to be a life-saving move for Sydney grandfather Terry Stewart.

Thompson, a driver for Lowes Petroleum, was delivering diesel to Cordillo Downs Station, south-east of Birdsville, when he opted to head west, eventually discovering the 75 year-old who was close to death and barely breathing.

Stewart, a track boss for the Great Escape Oz, a charity car rally for Cure 4 Cystic Fibrosis, was mapping out a route for the rally when his 4WD broke down in harsh terrain around 30km from Cordillo.

After spending the night in the car, he left a note saying he intended to walk to the station.

After discovering the abandoned vehicle, Thompson found the note and set out in pursuit.

“I followed his tracks for 13kms or so,” he said. “I knew he was in a bad way because the last 200 to 300 metres his tracks started going backward and forward, so he was clearly disorientated.

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“There were probably four to five sets of tracks. I kept doubling back and found him unconscious in a dry gully.

“The temperature that day was 47, 48 degrees Celsius. It was so hot I couldn’t touch the door handles to the truck,” Thompson recalls.

The stones on the ground were so hot they would burn your hand if you picked them up.”

A seasoned long-haul driver based in Quilpie, western Queensland, Thompson has worked for Lowes Petroleum for over 13 years driving a triple road train and covering over 100,000km a year. When he discovered Stewart’s prone body, he feared the worst.

“He was red raw. It looked like he wasn’t breathing it was so shallow.

“I ran to the truck and got some cold water and poured it on his clothes and he groaned, so I knew he was alive.”

Michael Thompson drives triple roadtrains covering more than 100,000km a year.

Using his satellite phone, Thompson called his wife who then contacted Cordillo Downs Station, who then put a call into the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS).

“He’d been walking around since 10 or 11am and I found him around 6pm,” Thompson recalls.

Janet Brook, who co-owns the station with husband Anthony Brook, quickly arrived with help, lifting Stewart into their 4WD. By 7pm he was in an air-conditioned room, receiving treatment following instructions from the RFDS.

“It was pretty close; another hour out there and it could have gone either way,” Thompson says.

“For two hours he was unresponsive and then around 9pm he started to wake a bit but couldn’t move his arms or legs or speak properly.

“If I hadn’t gone in that way instead of out, he would never have been found; there was no one else on the road that day. He would have been dead alright.”

Janet Brook believes Stewart did nothing wrong. “His four-wheel drive was in reasonable condition and he had some food and water and both his wife in Sydney and staff at the Birdsville Caravan Park knew of his travel plans.

“The remarkable thing about this is that Thompson was not due to bring the diesel out for another day but decided he would come early,” she says.

Since then Thompson has kept in communication with Stewart whose legs are still in bandages and is undergoing twice weekly treatment at the burns unit at Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital.

Stewart says he is planning only one trip in the future – a catch up with his rescuer when he is fit for travel.

“I don’t want people to call me a hero,” Thompson said humbly. “It’s what you do when you are out in the bush. His wife and family rang me and couldn’t thank me enough – that’s all you need.”

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