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Heroes, miracles and survival

Date

Phillip Thomson

ACT Fire and Rescue Station Officer Neil Maher, right rear, and Constable Paul Reynolds, left rear, with Zartash Sarwar, 13. Her friends who were also rescued in the incident are Tessa Blight, 13, of Palmerston, left, and Emily de Gier, 14, of Forde.

ACT Fire and Rescue Station Officer Neil Maher, right rear, and Constable Paul Reynolds, left rear, with Zartash Sarwar, 13. Her friends who were also rescued in the incident are Tessa Blight, 13, of Palmerston, left, and Emily de Gier, 14, of Forde. Photo: Graham Tidy

AS ZARTASH SARWAR lay on a hospital bed attached to a breathing machine, her parents could do nothing but pray for her to live.

Her lungs had filled with water after she had spent five minutes below the surface of Gungahlin's Yerrabi Pond. After she was pulled from the water her family began the painstaking wait for signs of life.

Doctors brought her out of the induced coma but it took seven days for her to move her hands.

Zartash Sarwar, with her rescuers: ACT Fire and Rescue Station Officer, Neil Maher, left and Constable Paul Reynolds.

Zartash Sarwar, with her rescuers: ACT Fire and Rescue Station Officer, Neil Maher, left and Constable Paul Reynolds. Photo: Graham Tidy

A day later, she opened her eyes. The following day their prayers had been answered. She could breathe on her own and no longer needed the machines.

''It is a miracle,'' said her father, Muhammad.

''We're so grateful to have her back.''

Zartash, 13 of Palmerston, left hospital a fortnight after she nearly drowned. Three weeks ago she returned to school for half-days and will soon be back full-time.

''I was kind of confused when I woke up in hospital,'' she told the Sunday Canberra Times.

''But I'm feeling good now and looking forward to my visual arts lessons at school.''

Even though her lungs are still regaining strength, the shy girl who wants to be an interior designer has no obvious signs that suggest she was almost killed by 27 centimetres of rushing stormwater.

Water no higher than her knees shooting across a paved spillway pushed her into the deep pond on October 12, a potentially fatal situation because she did not know how to swim.

Her family, who migrated from Pakistan more than a decade ago, said she will now be taking lessons.

Zartash and her family on Tuesday thanked the two men who rescued her, and praised medical staff at Calvary and Canberra hospitals as well as doctors at Westmead Children's Hospital.

Zartash's survival is due perhaps to several miracles.

Her friend, Emily de Gier, 14, who fell into the water with her, swam to Zartash, who was being swept 70 metres towards the centre of the pond, and clung onto her.

Off-duty firefighter Neil Maher, a fit man aged 47, was on annual leave. A veteran of the 2003 Canberra bushfires and last year's Japanese tsunami clean-up operation, he was walking his dog at the time and heard screaming. He stripped to his underwear, dived in and dragged Emily out of the water. When he reached the shallows he realised he was rescuing two girls, not one: Emily had never let go.

''She did a great job to hold on,'' Mr Maher said later.

At about the same time Mr Maher was in the water, Tessa Blight, 13, the third girl to have fallen into the pond, reached the shore and was about to call an ambulance.

Mr Maher started resuscitating Zartash, who had now turned blue. Plain-clothes police officer Paul Reynolds - patrolling in nearby Gungahlin streets in an unmarked car - arrived and took over CPR.

Mr Reynolds, 30, is not only a member of ACT Policing's special dive team but had recently returned from a training course in Sydney to sharpen his skills for such situations.

After 10 minutes, Zartash vomited and took some breaths.

''I was amazed when she started coughing,'' Mr Reynolds said.

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