Still seeking answers more than three years on, a Perth father whose toddler son died when a concrete pillar collapsed on him at Rottnest Island has described the moment his family’s idyllic holiday transformed into a nightmare as the “worst day of my life”.
The death of Michael Brasier’s three-year-old son Thomas in 2009 on the peaceful and carefree holiday haven shocked WA.
If that earth-shattering event was not tragedy enough for one family, they were faced with the fragility of life again when Mr Brasier’s wife of nine years Kath died in March this year, just six months after being diagnosed with leukaemia.
While the double tragedy would bring most people to their knees, Mr Brasier, who is rebuilding his life as a single working father to Sarah, 8, and Charlie, 20 months, is admirably a “glass half full person”.
The Princess Margaret Hospital emergency nurse will pay tribute to his wife when he runs the London Marathon in April next year, with the goal of raising $1000 for every kilometre of the 42km event for the WA Leukaemia Foundation.
The 45-year-old is set to surpass that, already amassing more than $38,000 in donations to help fight the disease that claimed his wife, also an emergency nurse, at the age of 38.
When the subject turns to Thomas’ death, Mr Brasier’s voice is thick with raw emotion and it is obviously painful for him to relive.
He and his children had warning about his wife’s death; they had time to say their goodbyes. Thomas’ brief life was over in the blink of an eye.
When Mr Brasier thinks back to October 27, 2009 — the second day of a planned week-long holiday with three other families staying in rented chalets at Bathurst Point and the day after he and his wife’s wedding anniversary — it is understandably blurry with shock and grief.
The Brasiers had already enjoyed bike rides and walks on the beach when Thomas, Sarah and other children were innocently playing in and around a hammock, attached to a concrete pillar, the unthinkable happened.
“I can just remember seeing the pillar start to fall, but I can’t recall where I was when that happened,” Mr Brasier said this week.
“I knew that Sarah was there, initially I was worried because it looked like it had landed on her arms and I thought she had broken both her arms. I guess I just saw her first and she was screaming.
“I’d almost forgot Thomas was in the hammock, I could see the other two girls (who were in the hammock with Thomas) got out and then I could just see his arm there and that’s when I realised he was still in there and he wasn’t moving.
“It was terrible, without a doubt the worst day of my life ... it’s a sequence of events that still doesn’t make any sense to me at all.”
Mr Brasier said the emergency response was amazing — from police and a holidaying doctor on the island who rushed to the scene to the rescue helicopter that arrived quickly and hospital staff in Perth — but he believed Thomas’ injuries were almost instantly fatal and nothing more could have been done to save him.
What more could have been done to prevent the tragedy is another question entirely that Mr Brasier grapples with.
Tests on the pillar revealed the structure had no steel reinforcement. The Rottnest Island Authority had all accommodation on the island checked. Out of 583 masonry pillars and structures X-rayed by engineers, 22 from 15 units were found to be similarly unsafe.
Mr Brasier said he and his wife both supported a coronial inquest into Thomas’ death, which is set for the first half of next year.
“I don’t know if they will ever be able to determine why things weren’t constructed in the way they should have been,” he said.
“But if you could have some safeguards in place to ensure it doesn’t happen again ... I don’t know if (blaming anyone) would help or not, I’m sure there is someone out there who is responsible, but it’s not going to bring Thomas back and to be honest I don’t know how I would feel about having someone to focus the anger on.
“Obviously it wasn’t a one-off, initially that made us feel very frustrated and angry, then afterwards almost relief that nothing else had happened (to anyone else), that there had been no others, that they had at least done the testing they needed to do to ensure at that stage everything else was safe.”
Mr Brasier said he and his wife had never thought of pursuing compensation for Thomas’ death.
“I think we would have both been almost insulted by the idea, how do you put a price on your son’s head,” he said.
Photographs of Thomas and his mother are displayed around the Brasier’s Leeming home and in a weekly family tradition Mr Brasier and his two children light candles for Thomas and Mrs Brasier on the days they died — as well as indulging in Thomas’ favourite food of ice-cream.
Mr Brasier said Thomas was a happy, active, friendly boy who loved cars, trucks, Thomas the Tank Engine and his big sister.
The little brother Thomas never knew, Charlie, is very much like him personality-wise.
Mr Brasier, who manages with support from family, friends and the community, has not returned to Rottnest since that fateful day and is not sure when he will venture back.
The most immediate challenge is the family’s first Christmas without his wife and the fourth without Thomas.
The nurse still relishes his work in helping sick and injured children, but he hasn’t come across a trauma case of the same magnitude as his son’s.
When an incoming emergency case might hit too close to home, his colleagues have a quiet word in his ear that it could be too much and he listens.
Mr Brasier, who has run several marathons in the past, said his London challenge was a fitting tribute to his wife, who believed in seizing opportunities, in more ways than just raising money.
The family was set to travel to the UK the week after Mrs Brasier was diagnosed – a holiday they never got to enjoy.
To donate visit my.leukaemiafoundation.org.au/michaelbrasier.