Lyndy Nerandzic, Mike's widow. Photo: Sylvia Liber
It is this year’s highest award for bravery and has been presented to just one Australian, but for Lyndy Nerandzic, her late husband’s posthumous Star of Courage is a bittersweet honour.
Michael Nerandzic died in June 2011 after the airship he was piloting in Germany caught fire. Lowering the craft to a safe height, the 52-year-old ordered his three passengers to jump from the gondola knowing that the loss of ballast would send the airship shooting into the sky. As the blimp ascended, it took just seconds for the balloon to be engulfed by flames, the gondola and its pilot then crashing to the ground.
"He loved what he did": Airship pilot Mike Nerandzic.
“To know that he hasn’t slipped away and somebody thinks that he deserves to be awarded for what he did, I think it’s just wonderful," Mrs Nerandzic said from her home in Berkeley on the NSW south coast. “It’s tremendous, it makes me very emotional, it’s not that I don’t think of him every single day as it is but when something like this comes up, it really makes me proud.”
Mr Nerandzic’s act of courage leads the 39th Australian Bravery Decorations which have been awarded to 67 individuals and 11 groups across the country by Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove, who offered his congratulations to all recipients.
"We are fortunate as a community and as a nation to benefit from your contribution," the Governor-General said. "You now join the company of men and women whose actions have enriched our community and whose values we hold dear."
Mrs Nerandzic said the award had come out of the blue and that she was unaware her husband had even been nominated. While Mr Nerandzic has already been presented with two other bravery awards, a decoration from Australia, she said, was particularly touching.
The pilot flew businessman Alan Bond's blimp before going on to fly the Virgin airship for entrepreneur Richard Branson. He was one of the world's most experienced blimp pilots and boasted to his wife that there were more astronauts on earth than airship pilots.
“He loved what he did, he absolutely loved it, he always wanted to fly," said Mrs Nerandzic. "I wasn’t aware of the dangers and each time he was interviewed on TV, the one thing he always said was ‘Don’t worry, you’ll never die in an airship, they’re so safe’.”
After his death, Mr Nerandzic was praised by Mr Branson, who hailed the “selfless and courageous last act” of a “true hero”.
Celebrations for the recognition would be muted, said Mrs Nerandzic, who will collect her husband's award from Government House.
“It’s a great honour, but my husband’s dead for it. Maybe I’ll just visit his grave and tell him all about it.”
Jarrad Townley, winner of a Bravery Medal, joins 21 others in the category, including his friend Troy Jorgensen. The two men helped rescue a dozen people from rising floodwaters in Kotara, Newcastle, in 2007.
“It’s one of those things that you hope the next person would do, it was nothing outstanding,” said Mr Townley, 27, a carpenter from Brighton-le-Sands. “It definitely wasn’t something I thought I’d get a medal for. It’s a proud moment, we just thank whoever nominated us - we have absolutely no idea who could have done it.”
Two of 44 Commendation for Brave Conduct awards have been given to brothers Damien and Jacob Berry, who in 2012 rescued a woman from a Penrith petrol station fire after a botched robbery.
Group Bravery Citations include honours for paramedics involved in the Beaconsfield mine rescue in 2006, members of the Marysville Country Fire Authority who were involved in the Victorian bushfires in 2009 and members of the public whose efforts saved the lives of people caught in a rip in Yeppoon, Queensland, in 2012.
The highest bravery award in the land is the Cross of Valour, of which just five have ever been given.