It has been 25 years since Michael O’Keefe smashed open the doors of a burning car, rescuing three children from inside.
All three survived, but he didn’t see them again – until now.
On Monday he was reunited with Jessie Wadley, who was eight months old when Mr O’Keefe pulled her from the backseat of her mother’s car in Launceston in 1993.
Working at The Pizza Pub at the time, Mr O’Keefe said he still remembered the day a group of girls ran into the Wellington Street restaurant yelling that a car was on fire outside.
Running onto the street, he found the car, which was quickly filling up with smoke.
“The windows were shut, I could feel the heat on them,” he said.
“I couldn’t see inside, the smoke was so thick. I was worried there was going to be an explosion and innocent people standing around were going to get killed.”
The next minute, a woman came running across the road screaming that her children were in the car, Mr O’Keefe recalled.
It was Jessie, her 18-month-old brother and three-year-old sister inside.
“So I slammed open the doors,” Mr O’Keefe said.
“A few other people came to help and we pulled the kids out onto the footpath. I tried to keep one of them breathing, I think it was Jessie’s sister Jenna.
“Their mother had grabbed Jessie and I wasn’t sure if she was dead or alive. I remember saying ‘give me the baby’ to see if she needed CPR.”
Emergency services arrived and the children were taken to hospital, suffering severe burns.
“I think all three were flown almost immediately from the Launceston General Hospital to Melbourne,” Mr O’Keefe said.
Seeing Ms Wadley again in Hobart was an “overwhelming experience” for Mr O’Keefe, who now lives interstate.
“She’s very strong-willed and a lovely person. It was a very brave move on her part to meet up with me,” he said.
The pair were reintroduced through a mutual friend last year and had been planning the get-together ever since.
“Jessie called me last year and I said I would be back in Tassie this year. We’ve both been waiting for a while for this to happen. It was a very emotional experience, it was hard not to break down,” Mr O’Keefe said.
For Ms Wadley, it was a chance to thank the man who saved her life.
“It was good to meet him, he was the one who saved me,” she said.
“I’m hoping he can meet my brother and sister next time he is in Tassie as well.”
Now 25, Ms Wadley is pregnant with her third child and uses her tragic experience to inspire other burns survivors through the Kids Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation.
“It has impacted me a lot,” she said.