ANYONE can see the sun set, but only those who really want to can see it rise.
And, on May 31 last year, Larry Meillear was determined to see that view. The orange orb emerging from the east, spotlighting the black sky as it hauled itself up over the Darling Ranges.
“Best part of the day,” Larry reckons. “Plus, that morning, me and a mate wanted to do some fishing. They were tipping it could be good. Hopefully there’d be some ‘dhuies’ (dhufish) or snapper.”
So the 66-year-old rose in the darkness, fossicked around for his fishing gear and headed down to his boat, a 20-foot (6.2 metre) blood red Chivers Thrasher moored outside his house on a Mandurah canal.
Around 6.30am he and his seafaring sidekick, Craig, hit the water and the pair chugged up the Peel-Harvey Estuary towards the Dawesville Cut. Half an hour later they’d broken free of the coastline and were drifting off into an empty blue ocean.
“We were a kilometre off the Dawesville Cut straight out from it,” he says. “It was fairly shallow and we stopped at a little reef. We were getting a few bites. I don’t think we’d got anything.”
But then Craig’s panicked voice split the silence not because of what he caught, but because of what he saw.
“Craig yelled ‘hey Larry, look at this!’,” the veteran fisherman recalls. “And I went over to the side of the boat and there was this frigging shark cruising past.
“It went around us three or four times. It was really close, brushing the side of the boat.”
Not only was it close, it was big.
“As its nose was going past the transom (back of the boat) its tail was still three-quarters of the way down the front,” Larry says. “That’s the biggest thing I’ve seen in the water. It was huge. And it was a fat bastard too. When I looked over the side, it’s back would have been a metre-and-a-half wide.
“By that stage, I’m thinking ‘I’m gonna stay away from the side of the boat’. Craig and I sat in the middle and just watched this thing go round us.”
But as the pair did their best to stay safe, they realised others may not be aware of the potential danger below.
“We were only a kilometre from shore,” Larry says. “We could actually see surfers at Pyramids (south of Dawesville). Craig said to me ‘we better ring someone and let them know there’s a shark hanging around’.
“So I called Mandurah Sea Rescue and they didn’t answer. I called a few more times and Rockingham Sea Rescue answered.
“I told them what was going on and they said ‘well it’s not really our problem, can you ring up the fisheries and report it to them’ and I thought ‘well f*** me, you know, I’m out here in the middle (of the ocean) on a boat with nothing, you’ve got all the phones and shit knows what …’
“Anyway, we called Fish Watch I think it was. And they were just as bloody helpful. They said they’d report it blah, blah, blah. I can’t recall if we got in touch with someone else, it’s been a long time.”
What was made public was an alert on the Surf Lifesaving WA Twitter feed that read: “Public report 3.5m white shark sighted 07:58hrs 31/05, Pyramids Beach, Mandurah 1.8km off shore.”
Larry is adamant he said they were one kilometre off shore _ “It was one kilometre. I said we were about a ‘K’ off the Dawesville Cut”. And he’s just as emphatic that more could have been done to monitor the monster.
“From Rockingham to Mandurah there would have to be at least 10 to 12 fisheries, water police, sea rescue boats that should have been out in the water _ and they should have had a helicopter up as well _ it was a kilometre from shore. That shark should have been found and scared out into the ocean.”
After the beast became bored with circling the ‘Salty Dog’ (Larry’s name for his vessel), it slowly sunk into the sea before drifting off into the distance.
“The shark just disappeared,” Larry says. “It went somewhere else. It wasn’t that deep (where we were), about 10m. As I said, this shark was right in (to the shore). And for a shark to be in that close and no one does anything about it, that’s f***ing atrocious.”
Larry has seen sharks before, but nothing the size of the one that circled him on the final day of autumn last year.
“I’ve sailed around Australia and I’ve sailed across the (Great Australian) Bight,” he says. “I’ve been to Port Lincoln and I’ve seen sharks there, but nothing that close and that big.”
With their early morning experience over, Larry Meillear pointed his little red boat west and meandered further out into the ocean. From above it would have looked like a tiny drop of blood sliding across a steel blue canvas.
As he gazed behind him, Larry could see the sun climbing into the sky. Up ahead was nothing but the flat line of the horizon. For years he had wondered what could possibly live below.
“That morning I found out,” he said. “Yep, we found out all right.”
Six hours later and three kilometres north of Larry’s close encounter, local schoolteacher Nick Jenkins sat on a stick of fibreglass almost 500m out to sea.
“How good’s this?” he thought.
The 43-year-old had the surf break of Sharkies to himself. And it was roaring. Surging swells, three and four metres high were rolling in from the southwest.
For the next hour or so he carved his signature across them. Waiting for a wall of water to form, paddling to the point of no return and then free-falling down the wave’s vertical drop before slicing across its face. Long, languid rides lasting up to 200m as he outpaced the white water breaking behind him.
Jenkins was regarded as one of the best surfers in the coastal hamlet of Falcon, about 80 kilometres south of Perth. He was also one of the most popular. When he greeted you there was a handshake, a beaming smile and maybe even a squeeze of the shoulder. The Director of Sport at Mandurah Catholic College seemed to know everyone in the area, and everyone was proud to say they knew ‘Jenks’.
Bobbing in the ocean that afternoon, he’d rarely felt better. As he looked east he could see the block of land he and his wife were building their dream home on. Yep, it was all good.
As the clock ticked towards 3.30pm, Glen Keaughran stood on the sand at Falcon with his surfboard under his arm eyeing off the Gearies break, which was slightly north of Sharkies and about 200m closer to shore.
The 58-year-old electrical planner had left his Kwinana workplace 45 minutes earlier with surfing on his mind. For almost 50 years he’d had salt water in his blood.
“Yeah, it’s a life-long addiction,” he says. “It’s something where you can still be the warrior, bite off a bit more than you can chew.”
But that afternoon, he wasn’t the only one dreaming of tubular swells. He could see about 30 surfers in the water at Gearies and, as he looked to his right, he saw the powerful frame of Ben Gerring standing a few metres away.
He didn’t know Ben but he’d seen him at the beach over the years. It was hard to miss the 29-year-old. He was almost six foot tall, had long blonde locks and was built like a bison from years of competitive sport and surfing.
Gerring had grown up in Falcon just two blocks back from the beach. He and his older brother Rick first tried to conquer the local waves when their father threw them a broken board from the local tip. From that moment on the salt water seduced them. Ben soon became a top class surfer and represented Australia in competitions in the US.
That afternoon in May last year he was on a rostered break from his FIFO job and ready to hit the water.
Keaughran glanced across at Ben Gerring, shrugged his eyebrows as if to say ‘this looks pretty good’ and the pair trotted into the water ready to take on some of the best surf Mother Nature had gifted Gearies in a long time.
As Keaughran battled his way through the oncoming white wash, he smiled to himself.
“Yep, I’d just come back from surfing in the Mentawai Islands in Sumatra,” he recalls. “So I was paddle fit and I was sort of pacing myself against this big, strong, young bloke. We had to punch our way through the water and I was hanging in there with this young guy just to prove a point to myself.”
The pair had almost made it to Gearies when a slip of a surfer stood on the beach behind them holding his board. That man, Ben Long, had broad, powerful shoulders from years of taking on the ocean. With shy eyes peeking out from behind a flop of brown hair, the 33-year-old was a regular at Gearies, often punishing waves twice his size.
That afternoon Long had finished work at Fremantle and felt the lure of the surf. As he stood on the water’s edge he heard it calling him as well – the static crackle of the white wash, the muted crash of big waves breaking further out and the suck of the shore dump stealing sand from beneath his feet.
Long had been waiting for a mate to join him but, as the backwash retreated into the sea, it was as if an invisible puppeteer was pulling him into the ocean. Finally, the temptation proved too strong. He ran into the water, jumped on his board and skimmed across the surface ready to take on the three-metre swell.
When Glen Keaughran reached the other 30 or so surfers clustered out at Gearies he immediately found his rhythm and slid onto a wave.
“I caught my wave and I was in tune,” Keaughran recalls. “Sometimes when you go surfing you actually get in sync with when the sets are coming and where the waves are going to break. As I was paddling back out I was taking all this in.
“By then Ben (Gerring) had moved out the back. There’s a spot right out the back where you know you’re going to get the big set wave. But you’ve got to be patient as they probably only come through every 15 minutes.
“Everyone else was sitting inside because there were plenty of waves. I paddled out inside of him, but wide of him, maybe 15 metres away. So I sat there for a moment. Just north of him.”
Ben Long had also found his rhythm. Once he’d reached Gearies he had quickly caught a wave then paddled back out around the pack. As he lifted his head he could see the sun starting to slip from the sky and one lone figure sitting out further than anyone else. He didn’t know the surfer personally, but he knew of him. It was Ben Gerring.
“I was probably about seven to10 metres from him,” Long recalls. “He had paddled a fair way out. I looked across and thought ‘man’ _ like it was big that day _ and I thought ‘man, that’s a long way out, I wonder why he’s out there’. I was thinking ‘maybe it’s breaking out there today’.”
But rather than break, the swell actually subsided. A stillness seemed to settle over the ocean.
Glen Keaughran noticed it as well.
“When it’s big at Gearies you tend to be paddling against this south-to-north rip” he says. “But, for whatever reason the rip had backed off, and the swell had backed off, and everything had settled.”
Keaughran lowered himself onto his board and paddled a few easy strokes south. It was the calm before the ultimate storm.
Suddenly, the serenity was shattered by a splash that shook him. Keaughran instinctively stopped and turned to his right.
“I looked over to where Ben Gerring was and it just seemed all wrong,” Keaughran recalls. “He wasn’t there. It was like he’d jumped off his board and done a ‘bommie’ alongside his board. But you just knew, on that day, when there were such good waves, that wasn’t the thing people would be doing.
“I didn’t hear anyone call out or anything but I definitely sensed everyone stop and wait. It was a fair while actually. Like a pause.”
Then he saw it _ a shark! Not its head or tail, but its body. Breaking the surface next to Ben Gerring’s board, turning over so easily and dominantly, and then slipping under the water again.
“It rolled right next to his board, which was lying on the surface pointing out to sea,” Keaughran says.
At that moment a guttural cry of terror went off behind him as the pack of surfers realised the ocean’s deadliest predator was amongst them.
“SHARK! SHARK! SHARK! SHARK! SHARK!”
Their panic hit Keaughran like a physical force.
“It was like I felt all their fear roll over me,” he recalls. “There was a fair bit of swearing and ‘oh f…, it’s a shark, it’s an attack’. I could hear everyone yelling out around me. Basically, at that point everyone shot through. And who could blame them? It was heavy and it was ‘on’ and there was a feeling that this was your worst nightmare just starting to happen.”
What also struck Keaughran, was the force of what was taking place in front of him.
“Yep, just how incredibly powerful the shark was,” he says. “It was violence on steroids. The grunt of this thing was just phenomenal. In saying that I never saw the head of the shark and I never saw the tail, I just saw it roll, but I got a good feel of how big it was.”
When Glen Keaughran speaks, he does so with a calm authority. As if all those years in the water have washed away anything that would worry someone else. And maybe that’s why, on that May afternoon last year, his instinct was to stay when every fibre of his body must have been telling him to flee.
“I just thought ‘well, I’ll hang around and see what the outcome’s going to be,” he says. “And I paddled slightly south to a spot, just slowly, where if I had to get out of there that’s where I could get a wave, where most of the swell rolls through.
“I kept looking across but I didn’t really see a lot because there was wave and chop and stuff happening between me and him. Then I pulled up and sat there and I knew no one else was there. It was a pretty lonely place to be.”
But, unbeknown to him, someone else was there. And he’d seen everything.
Seconds earlier when Ben Long had been looking at Ben Gerring wondering why he was out so far, he noticed something.
“Between me and the horizon there was only Ben Gerring and as I watched him he sort of flinched and looked down to his right,” Long recalls. “I thought ‘oh, he’s lost his balance’, because he then slipped off his board to the left. But it was dead calm. So I was thinking ‘that’s a bit weird, what’s going on mate?’
“Then, from nowhere, a shark’s head came up over the front of his board and grabbed him and I was like ‘oh, right, he didn’t fall off his board’, this is bad.”
Then Ben Long saw the raw power that Glen Keaughran had felt. The shark flung itself in the air, its giant tail rising skyward like a tower. As it came down it landed on Ben Gerring’s board, snapping it like a stick.
“Ben’s board went sideways,” Long recalls. “And the shark landed on it.
“When its tail came out I could see that from the front of its dorsal fin to its tail was eight or nine feet.
“I remember the water streaming off its tail. The amount of water was just draining down the back was incredible. That’s when I thought ‘whoa, this is a big shark’.
“I was pretty close to it all. When its tail swung over it splashed me. I was still sitting on my board but I pushed back a couple of times with my arms and then I just sat there for a second.
“Initially I thought ‘maybe I can go and help him with the shark’. But, to be honest, seeing the shark and how big it was I felt intimidated. I felt, even if I paddled over and punched it or did anything I don’t think it would even feel it. It just felt way beyond me.
“So I paddled another five paddles in shore a little bit and then I sat on my board and I just waited to see how Ben came up afterwards.
“And I felt bad, I felt I should go and help him,”
He also felt alone. Like Keaughran, he believed he was the only one left out there, almost 300m from shore with nothing to protect him and no one to help him.
“I turned to my right and everyone was gone and I was like ‘oh, I’m out here on my own’,” Long recalls. “But then I looked left and Glen was there.”
And just as he realised he had some support, Ben Gerring surfaced. As he breached the water he put his left hand on the back of his board and went to place his right hand at the top of his board, but there was nothing there. So he slipped under again. The next time he broke the water, he also made a calm but anguished plea: “Help, help.”
That’s also the moment Glen Keaughran found out he had an ally in the ocean.
“I yelled out to Ben Gerring that it was OK, that I was waiting for him to come to me,” Keaughran recalls. “At that point I thought no one else was there. Then all of a sudden from behind me this voice yelled out and it was Ben Long. He’d also stayed behind. So the two of us were calling out.
“But it became apparent that Ben Gerring was losing strength fairly rapidly, and this calm voice beside me just said: “We’re going to have to go to him.”
“And I said ‘OK, let’s go.”
Ben Long moved first and decided on an “all-or-nothing’ plan to scare the shark.
“I don’t know what I was thinking but I figured if I paddled with a bit of purpose then maybe the shark would be put off or something,” he says. “I just put my head down and paddled, but then I noticed the water was all red and I was like ‘oh, this is heavier than I thought’.”
Glen Keaughran went with him and, from that moment, the destiny of three strangers was tied together. Gerring could not live without the help of his two rescuers, and Keaughran and Long could not live with themselves if they left the scene.
“I often wonder why I stayed, and it came down to the fact that I just couldn’t leave him there,” Keaughran says. “It wasn’t about bravery or courage. I simply couldn’t leave him there to die.”
When the men reached Gerring he was conscious. And calm. Keaughran adds: “Ben Gerring was extraordinarily courageous. He didn’t freak out, he didn’t scream in pain. Mentally, he was fine.”
But, physically he was struggling. After Ben Long spoke to him briefly assuring him they would take him to safety Gerring started to pass out. The shark had taken his right leg above the knee and the red water was proof he was losing a lot of blood.
And so their journey began. For the next 15 minutes Keaughran and Long’s sole focus was to get Ben Gerring to shore. Their first hurdle was the surf – there was none. The waves had dropped off. Just when they thought they may be able to scramble a set to take them the 250 metres to shore, nothing came.
They also realised Gerring’s broken board meant he kept slipping off. Every time they tried to move forward, he would sink into the sea.
So, in an act of courage hard to comprehend, Glen Keaughran gave up the safety of his own surfboard.
In blood-stained water with a shark lurking below, the man old enough to be Ben Gerring’s father, jumped off his board and let his legs dangle in the depths as he and Long tried to shift an unconscious Gerring to a more stable device.
“Getting off my board was just one of those things you can’t explain,” Keaughran shrugs. “That’s just what you have to do at that particular time. Obviously I was terrified of the shark and all that, but if we were going to try to save this guy’s life, that’s just what we had to do.”
But, as much as they tried to move Gerring across, they couldn’t do it. So they kept him on his own broken board, turning him on his back to stop the water getting into his mouth.
And from there, they paddled. Ben Long using his left hand as a stroke as his right held on to Ben Gerring’s wetsuit to keep him out of the water. And Glen Keaughran on the southern side, pushing from behind.
Throughout the journey Long continually talked to Gerring. He didn’t know if he could hear him or not, but he wanted the big stranger to know he wasn’t alone.
“I just thought I’ll talk to him all the way in,” Long reflects. “He might not have been fully passed out and he could hear us so I just kept saying ‘mate, we’ll be in shore in a sec, you’ll be right, just hold tight, there’s people waiting on the beach’ so for the whole way in I talked to him.”
As well as talking, Ben Long also looked up hoping someone else would help.
“It was a decent paddle to the beach, almost 300 metres,” he says. “I’d look up and I could see the beach was lined with people. Everyone was in a line looking out to sea. It felt like, weird, it felt like everyone was just watching us.
“But I understood, I wouldn’t have wanted to get in the water either. You know, I didn’t exactly want to be there. After five minutes I was resigned that no one else was coming so I stopped looking up.
“Every now and then I’d glance up to see if there was an ambulance in the car park or flashing lights, but there wasn’t so I just went back to paddling.”
Around 50 metres from shore a surfer, Ian Barker, was in the water and gave assistance. Then a number of Ben Gerring’s friends, including Matt Lodge and Ben Hamilton, threw themselves in the surf to help get their stranded mate to the beach.
As they dragged him out of the water the reality set in. Not only was he unconscious but he had also lost his right leg above the knee and blood was streaming out all over the sand.
Meanwhile, almost 500m out to sea, Nick Jenkins looked around to see a commotion on shore.
“At that stage a couple of other guys had joined me at Sharkies and we could see people standing up at the Gearies car park waving surfboards above their heads,” Jenkins says. “We thought someone may have spotted a shark because it was an epic day of surfing and no one is going to get you out of the water unless it’s fair dinkum. Surfers know. So we took it seriously.
“Anyway, I hooked on to this bomb, this great wave, which took me nearly all the way to the beach and about 150 metres south of the car park.”
About the same time Nick Jenkins noticed surfers signalling to him from the beach, Ben Gerring’s older brother, Rick, was sitting by his wife’s bedside in the cancer ward of St John of God Hospital at Subiaco.
As he watched his partner convalesce from her latest cervical cancer surgery, Rick felt his phone pulse. He looked at the screen and saw the name ‘Zak Alexander’ light up. Zak was one of his brother’s best mates and Rick had known him for years.
He walked out to the hallway and answered: “Hello mate.”
The response came quickly: “Rick, Ben’s been attacked by a shark!”
Rick paused. Wary. Zak was obviously kidding, throwing in a one-liner to set the mood. Rick replied: “Yeah right, you’re joking.”
Zak’s answer wasn’t what he wanted. “I’m not Rick. He’s been attacked by a shark!”
Rick’s heart leapt into his throat.
“I heard it in his voice,” he recalls. “That’s when I knew he wasn’t joking. Then he basically went on to say it wasn’t good and that he’d lost his leg.”
Rick raced into his wife’s room and broke the bad news. He kissed her goodbye and then braced himself to call his mum. As he retells the story he breaks down in tears. Even though it’s a year since the attack the pain is obvious as he struggles to find the words.
“I had to think a bit,” he says. “Because mum was only down the road at Falcon working in real estate so she was close by.
“I said ‘mum, are you sitting down?’. And she’s like ‘yes, what’s up hon’. Anyway I told her Ben had been attacked by a shark, that he was at Gearies and she needed to get there now. She basically hung up on me. She just started crying and lost it and hung up the phone. That was tough.”
Rick then rang his dad and Ben’s fiancé, Jasmine, who was working FIFO at Newman. But, because news of the attack was spreading across the media like wildfire, she had already been told and was racing to get to the airport. From there he headed to his car to beat peak hour traffic down the Kwinana Freeway.
Crowds on the beach
When Nick Jenkins got out of the water he could see a crowd around the shore break at Gearies.
“I looked up and realised they were dragging someone out of the water,” he says. “So I just dropped my board and sprinted down the beach.”
As he got closer he recognised the injured person straight away. “Shit,” he thought. “That’s Benny Gerring.”
Being a physical education teacher, Jenkins was also an endorsed trainer for St John Ambulance.
“I teach first aid courses,” he says. “So, as I got closer, I was sort of thinking to myself ‘mate, there was always going to come a time when you had to hold your nerve and step up. This might be that day’.”
When Jenkins arrived at the scene Ben Long and his friend, Storm Lewington, were doing compressions and trying to get water out of Ben Gerring’s mouth. Another local, Wayne Dawe, had used a roof tie-down with a turnbuckle to secure a tourniquet around the top of his leg. But around them, Jenkins could see the shock on people’s faces.
“There were a lot of people there and many of them were Ben Gerring’s best mates,” Jenkins recalls. “And it was horrific for them.”
So Jenkins composed himself and took charge.
“I said, right guys, we’ve got to work together as a team,” he remembers saying. “So one guy started helping with compressions and I cleared Benny’s airway. Then we rolled him over to get the water out of him.
“Then someone brought a CPR mask down and I commenced doing breathing from there. That worked out well. I found that by me doing the breaths meant I was able to talk to everyone. So after my two breaths someone would do 30 compressions and during that time I could give directions, like ‘I want you to count the compressions, I need you to get some scissors, we need you to help cut his wetsuit’, stuff like that. It was about making sure people were busy and keeping their minds active.”
While barking out instructions Jenkins noticed two things. The first was Ben Gerring’s mum arriving at the beach _ “gee, that was tough,” Jenkins recalls. And the second was: “Where was the friggin’ ambulance!?”
St John records show the first triple zero call was made at 3.55pm but, because the closest vehicle was about 50km away at Secret Harbour it didn’t arrive until 4.19pm. That meant Jenkins and his legion of locals kept Ben Gerring alive for almost 30 minutes.
Ben Long and Glen Keaughran remember Jenkins being a true leader.
“When Nick came along he took control and got everyone organised,” Keaughran says. “He did an excellent job, a brilliant job. Nick Jenkins is definitely one of the good guys in the world.”
By chance, one of only 15 critical care paramedics in WA, was also assisting. Tony Reynolds had been surfing about 500m south of Gearies when he saw people on the beach waving boards above their heads. So he jumped in his car and drove to the scene. As Reynolds arrived so did the Westpac helicopter with other critical care staff.
There were now four regular paramedics, four critical care paramedics (including Reynolds) and four police officers all working together to save Ben Gerring.
Reynolds is full of praise for the bravery and composure shown by the locals.
“The decisions those boys had to make were confronting,” he says. “I can’t fathom the mindset of what they had to go through, but that instinctive ‘gotta help’ reaction obviously kicked in and the first aid they did was amazing.”
But Gerring was still losing blood. So the decision was made to take him to Peel Health Campus rather than airlift him to Royal Perth Hospital.
As he was placed into the back of an ambulance hundreds of people were now on the scene. And, at that moment, Nick Jenkins finally cracked. After keeping his composure for more than 30 minutes to try and keep Gerring alive and the injured man’s friends focused, he turned around to see his wife and broke down in her arms.
“At that moment I looked around and there was every person you knew and cared about in Falcon all standing there and the looks on their faces was just horrific,” Jenkins recalls. “And it all just hit me. I lost it. And other people were crying all around me too.”
When Ben Gerring’s ambulance arrived at Peel Health Campus he was given a four per cent chance of survival. Blood was leaking from him like a broken tap – something his brother Rick noticed when he and his mum were allowed to see him.
“Just before they were going to take him to RPH the head nurse took us into Emergency to see him,” Rick recalls. “And that is a sight that will never leave me. There was so much blood. Just to see him in that state. Nothing prepares you for that.
“I’m still gob smacked how he made it that far. That’s why I’m blown away by what those guys did for him at the beach just to get him that far. Then all the emergency staff and nurses. Remarkable people.”
At 6.16pm Gerring was helicoptered to RPH where he arrived at 7.33pm and was rushed straight into surgery before being taken to the Intensive Care Unit.
By now Ben’s fiancé, Jasmine, had arrived as had his father. Rick and his mum soon joined them and the four kept a bedside vigil.
But there was someone else also watching over him. ICU nurse Christian Hutton had started his shift at 7pm and was assigned Ben Gerring. From the moment the stricken surfer arrived in ICU, Hutton rarely left his bedside. It’s something that has always stayed with Rick Gerring.
“That first night I’ll never forget how one of the nurses sat there until he finished his shift at 7am,” Rick says. “And all night he had his hand on the blood bag as it was going into my brother. He did that all night. Non-stop. I never saw him have a break. There were tubes running left, right and centre and he just held the bag of blood all night trying to keep it warm to help it clot.”
Hutton, who’s been an ICU nurse for 12 years, downplayed his role saying: “When you’re on an intensive care patient you don’t leave their bedside, your job is to stay there.
“But I do remember Ben Gerring because when he came in that was the busiest shift I’ve had in my life. I think it was the most amount of blood we’ve ever put into someone. At the end of my shift I added it up, and it was 24 litres of blood. I’ve never seen anything like it in all my life. It was intense.”
So, throughout the night, as Perth slept, Ben Gerring lay in a bed on the fourth floor of Royal Perth Hospital surrounded by his mum, dad, brother and fiancé giving him love and a nurse giving him every possible chance to live.
But even with that support he was struggling. The next morning, at just after 7am, Dr Dieter Weber, who was treating Ben, met with Dr Sudhaker Rao, the Director of the State Major Trauma Unit at RPH asking if “he had any other ideas”.
“Surgically, there was nothing more we could do,” Dr Rao says. “But what we could do was improve some of the blood products.”
“So I rang the Australian Red Cross Blood Service and within half an hour they had convened a group of experts on the east coast and over here to make sure we got the best blood products needed. So there was nothing he lacked.”
And for the next two days, Ben Gerring fought back. Even though he was in an induced coma, his family, and the medical staff, could see him gaining strength. And maybe it was more than just physical. Maybe he was fighting for someone else. As Jasmine sat in the ICU ward holding his hand she wasn’t on her own, she was three months pregnant with their first child.
Away from the hospital there had been developments at Falcon. On the Wednesday morning three drum lines were deployed off Gearies, and at 3pm that afternoon a great white shark was caught. For three hours it thrashed against its hook, only to finally lose the battle. It was measured at 4.2 metres and a skin sample was taken before it was dumped out at sea.
Just over 18 months earlier the Fisheries Department caught two great whites on drum lines off Esperance after surfer Sean Pollard had been attacked at that beach by a shark, losing his left arm and right hand. On that occasion the animals were taken back to Perth for research. Yet the great white caught off Gearies wasn’t.
When queried about the inconsistency, the department’s Shark Response Unit spokesperson, Tony Cappelluti said: “Policies in place at the time provided for a number of operational options including disposal at sea. In this case, operations managers concluded that the shark would be disposed of in this manner.”
He also denied that not keeping the dead shark was a lost opportunity to see if it was the same one that attacked Ben Gerring, saying: “The retention of the shark carcass in this case would not have necessarily provided a conclusive answer.”
Three days after Ben was attacked the Fisheries Department put out a press release revealing a white shark was responsible. A year on, no one from Fisheries has asked Ben Long or Glen Keaughran what they saw in the water that afternoon.
In the ICU ward at Royal Perth there was bad news. Ben’s health took a setback. Despite all the love, support and medical care he was losing the fight. Even though his blood was finally clotting, the pressure on his organs was proving too much.
From Thursday night through to Friday morning Rick sat by his silent brother, talking to him, playing him music and reading him messages from all the texts that were pouring in. But he could also see his vital signs were dropping. Then, on Friday, the family was told to “start preparing for the worst”.
Rick sobs quietly as he remembers those final moments.
“We were all in the ICU together,” he says. “It was a really tough few hours that Friday afternoon. And then he passed away just after 7pm.”
“I couldn’t go in. I just wasn’t ready to let him go. No one was.”
Ben’s death made headlines around the world but, more significantly, it broke hearts nearby. The local community at Falcon still struggles without one of their most familiar faces.
A memorial spot christened “Benny’s Bar’ has been set up at the Gearies car park where family and friends regularly meet and reminisce.
In the aftermath of the attack, lives have changed.
*Despite his pain, Rick Gerring has become a prominent advocate for shark mitigation, determined to make sure his brother has a legacy. His latest project is a leg rope with an inbuilt ratchet that can be used as a tourniquet. Rick’s wife, Tara, is continuing chemotherapy in her battle with the cervical cancer, neuroendocrine.
*Glen Keaughran and Ben Long had never met before they stayed in the water that afternoon last year at Gearies. They were among 15 people recently awarded Surf Life Saving Coastal Bravery Awards for their heroic actions that day. The pair have since become close friends, a relationship soldered together by mutual respect. As Long says about the man 25 years his senior: “If I was ever in a situation like that again I wouldn’t want anyone next to me but Glen Keaughran.”
*There is no proof the shark that circled Larry Meillear’s boat was the one that attacked Ben Gerring. Nor does any organisation or authority have any responsibility for monitoring sharks like the one seen by Larry that morning. He believes the shark he saw may have caused the horror that afternoon.
If it was, he says: “That guy (Ben Gerring) should not have died. They could have saved his life if they’d gone out there. The helicopter would have found it straight away. It was shallow water. It wasn’t rough. And, as I said, there would have to be at least 12 boats along that coastline that could have been alerted and should have been out.”
When questioned, the Department of Fisheries’ Tony Cappelluti said: “Actions in line with policy and procedures at the time were taken. Water Police advised that the distance reported to them was one nautical mile (1.8km).” But Larry is insistent he reported his position as one kilometre off the coast.
In the hours after Ben was attacked, a GoFundMe page was set up to support Ben and Jasmine. Hundreds of donations cluttered the charity as friends, work colleagues and strangers contributed more than $60,000.
Jane Dawe, the wife of Wayne Dawe who held the tourniquet around Ben’s leg on the beach, chipped in $100. Cath Hopper contributed $500 as did Ben Guard. Santi Samban made every cent count, donating $128.
On the Friday evening, when Ben Gerring lost his battle, an avalanche of money – and just as many words – crowded the tribute pages. Carolyn Watt gave $1000. Jessica Coldwell offered up $10 but wanted to give more: “I don’t have much … hope that’s OK.”
Jasmine’s work colleagues from Cloudbreak raised $5384. And Julie Wilkinson, who’d taught Ben almost 25 years ago, left $100 with the words: “I have very fond memories of Ben when he was a little boy, a long time ago, when he was in my year one class at Bibra Lake Primary.”
All of them came from people who wanted to help in some way. Physically they hadn’t been able to do so on that final day of autumn last year but, financially, they thought they could contribute something that might make a difference.
Then, hidden away, amongst the cluster of names was a donation from someone who most people would have thought had already done more than enough.
“Yeah, I did leave a message. I did that for the family. At that point I didn’t know the family, I didn’t know Jasmine. I just thought, you know, well, I just thought it was the right thing to do.”
Alongside his pledge for $100 were the words: “Ben, I only knew you for a short time in the water. You were calm, composed, focused and incredibly brave. Your courage will inspire me for the rest of my life. Rest in peace.”