“Helping your mates out is definitely part of the Australian character,” says Andy Watts, a softly spoken TV editor from Sydney’s Castlecrag. “It’s important that we help each other – both for our country and our society. It says a lot about us.”
What Andy did in 2013 during a family holiday in the Upper Hunter goes beyond mere help: chasing down a runaway vehicle and pulling a little girl to safety was heroic.
The events of that day are etched in his memory: driving in a convoy of two vehicles; a ute carrying two adults and three children on the tray parks at the top of a hill to admire the view. Suddenly, the handbrake fails and the vehicle is rolling downhill, fast, towards a ravine.
“The parents tried to get the kids out but there was one stuck in the middle who wouldn’t let go and nobody could get to her,” Andy recalls. “I was about 20 metres away and started running at the ute.”
While the adults on board managed to leap off with two of the children, six-year-old Sophie Penrose, the daughter of Andy’s school mate Bill, was so petrified she refused to let go. Andy acted on pure instinct.
“Luckily I managed to chase the ute down, pull myself into the back and grab Sophie,” he says. “We jumped over the side, tumbled for a bit and came to a halt. Somehow Sophie and I were still alive.”
Jumping from the moving ute with Sophie cradled in his arms, Andy had taken the full impact of the fall, shattering his left leg in the process. He lay in agony for an hour-and-a-half before an ambulance arrived by road.
“The ambulance crew had already called the rescue helicopter,” he says. “But when they did the scans in the John Hunter Hospital in Newcastle they realised just how bad it actually was and sent me to Sydney.”
Once in Sydney, Andy underwent a seven-hour operation on his mangled leg – surgeons had initially wanted to amputate the limb. When the broken bones healed crooked, he had to endure a second, equally lengthy procedure.
“Knowing that Sophie was alive gave me a sense of peace during my operations,” he says.
Andy and Sophie still see each other at family get-togethers but, despite their strong bond, rarely talk about what happened on that fateful day in 2013. “She’s 11 now and quite shy,” he says.
For his part, Andy says that he is very proud that he managed to save the life of his mate’s daughter, but attributes this to a combination of his own physical prowess and sheer good luck rather than personal heroism.
“Last year , I was given the Citation for Bravery,” he says. “Standing in front of all those people was an overwhelming experience. It also helped me to tie the whole thing up and give the episode a happy ending.”