Garry Hall - Unsung hero of the hose

4 minutes read
Posted 8 May, 2024
Garry and wannabe fireman grandson Cooper Rushton in matching outfits

Garry and wannabe fireman grandson Cooper Rushton in matching outfits

Garry Hall’s always been a good guy to have around.

The former Arrowtown Volunteer Fire Chief and lead Wakatipu Rural firefighter, served in these voluntary roles for just under 40 years – 39 in the Arrowtown brigade and about 15 for local Rural Fire. He’s been in the thick of one too many tragedies, extracting seriously injured people from badly mangled cars and fighting back fierce flames to save others and their livelihoods.

But it’s all been in a day’s work – unpaid work, for this practical Southland-born bloke, who grew up hunting and fishing with his dad, the Invercargill-based inspector for the Pest Destruction Board for the lower South Island.

Garry worked after school from 14, carpet cleaning, and at weekends driving tractors and trucks on farms, heading wheat from 15.

A practical kid, he left school at 15, becoming a builder’s apprentice, eventually moving to Arrowtown in the 1980s. “We were building late one night and noticed this girl jogging along. She slowed to a walk, and we got chatting.” He and Christine married in 1986, the year after Garry joined the Arrowtown Volunteer Fire Brigade at the suggestion of mate Russell Foster, who later joined too. They were both honoured for their long service when they retired recently, along with Greg Potter and Antony O’Connell.

Garry has a wad of Fire Service honours, and even designed the brigade’s unique crest featuring a fern and fire hydrant entwined in autumn colours.

While unfortunately there have been too many real fatalities, communications went a bit awry on Garry’s first call-out. “We’d been called to a ‘bus crash’ past Waitiri Station and were told there were ‘multiple people injured’. We arrived to find a cattle truck had flipped over and cattle were racing around everywhere.”

Sadly, there have been many human fatalities over the years, something the brigade didn’t really deal with in the early days, Garry says. “You just had to get up and do the job with what was at hand.” Garry was instrumental in ensuring there was mental and emotional support for the firefighters returning from such tragedies after he noticed one of the guys had been quite badly affected and needed help. He eventually convinced the Fire Chief of the day that support was vital. The chief’s wife ended up joining Victim Support locally.

“After that we’d always go back to the station and have a cup of coffee or a few beers and talk about what we’d just seen.” Garry would then ring around the team the next day and see how they were doing, talking to their spouses or partners, if necessary, to get them help.

He’s clocked 48-hour long stints, fighting serious fires, working in his roofing maintenance business, then monitoring fire sites again at night while chief. It all called for patience at home. Mates around for a barbecue would often end up cooking as he’d get called out.

Rural fires took Garry as far away as Te Anau, up The Remarkables and over to Alexandra, where the fires were pretty intense.

Helicopter pilots would hover their skids by the truck window, passing the lunches to the firefighters on the back, amid some pretty fierce downdrafts.

Garry’s had several close calls on the job in choppers when the odd volunteer has forgotten what they learned in training, their pilots very unimpressed.

However, his closest call was in the thick of a fully engulfed building in intense heat and flames during the World Bar blaze in 2013 when the upstairs floor collapsed beneath him. Thankfully, the fall was stopped when he was caught midway by his breathing apparatus and arms, which stopped him falling right through into the flames.

Then there was the training exercise that went wrong, the fire chief of the day none too pleased that the boys had blown up a car in a local contracting yard before Deputy Garry arrived on scene. “The guys had drilled the hole in the side of the petrol tank, not the bottom as instructed,” he grins. “The chief was at home and heard the explosion. He phoned me and yelled some strong expletives. Needless to say, we changed our safety regulations in the 1990s.”

He’s spent thousands of hours fighting fires in the past 40 years.

“You had to be self-employed, or you couldn’t sustain it,” he says. Wife Christine reckons revenue in Garry’s roofing business increased by $20,000 the first year he stepped down as chief. But she always knew what she was signing up for - her father (Mason) and grandfather (Stevenson), both Arrowtown volunteer firefighters.

There have been great times though at brigade functions and fundraisers, Garry also coming up with the idea of fundraising for their own fully kitted 4WD smoke chaser to respond to the ever-increasing number of medical callouts.

He’s been an old romantic too, gold panning up the Arrow River for 18 months finding enough to make his and Christine’s wedding bands. Metal detecting, another hobby and the perfect escape from a busy pager, has taken him as far as Australia too.

GarryJ carrying local bride Kelsi out of the Arrowtown Athenaeum Hall for a laugh after the brigade interrupted wedding celebrations for a call out to the hall in 2008

Garry carrying local bride Kelsi out of the Arrowtown Athenaeum Hall for a laugh after the brigade interrupted wedding celebrations for a call-out to the hall in 2008


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