16 January 2023

Riverina Rewind: The Illabo toddler on the tracks and the five-year-old hero

| Chris Roe
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Child on railway line

Eighteen-month-old Terry Kelly was playing on the tracks as the Riverina Express approached. Photo: Chris Roe.

“He is the bravest youngster I have ever seen and deserves any award,” said Illabo railway ganger J. Gardiner after watching a fleet-footed five-year-old save his baby brother from the path of an oncoming locomotive.

It was May 1942 and Gardiner looked up from his work as he heard the Riverina Express whistle, heralding its approach to the little station at Illabo.

To his horror, he saw a tiny child playing on the tracks several hundred metres away with the train approaching fast.

Eighteen-month-old Terry Kelly had wandered from his parents’ nearby residence and was sitting in the middle of the tracks alongside a stationary train on the adjacent set of rails, oblivious to the danger.

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As Gardiner began to run towards the child, knowing that he would never reach him in time, another pair of tiny rescuers emerged ahead of him.

Terry’s brothers, five-year-old Bernie and four-year-old Phillip had also heard the whistle and were now sprinting barefoot down the line towards the oncoming train and the child some 50 metres ahead of them.

In the family’s home, the boy’s mother looked up in time to see all three children on the rails and fainted.

Their father P.J. Kelly was at work on the station platform, too far away to reach them in time.

The Riverina Express in 1946. Photo: NSW Archives.

Gardiner watched the rescue unfold as the five-year-old reached the toddler first, the train just seconds away and moving at 50 to 60 miles per hour.

“Bernie had run 50 yards, and all the time the engine came at him,” he recalled.

“Bernie crossed right in front of the engine and took a flying tackle at the toddler. He grabbed him round the waist, carried him out of the path of the engine and hugged him down against a stationary train on the next line.”

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The Express was thundering past as Gardiner reached the three boys. He took hold of Phillip, pulling him under the protection of the stationary train and shouting to the boys not to be afraid and to stay down.

“The noise of the train flung my words back in my face,” he said and marvelled at the bravery of the boys.

“Bernie got his brother out right in the face of the oncoming train. Another split second and both would have been chopped to pieces.”

Their distressed father had lost sight of them as they disappeared behind the fast-moving train and was overwhelmed with relief when the man and three boys emerged unscathed.

The story became a news sensation and young Bernie was declared a hero by the Illabo Parents and Citizens Association who approached the Royal Humane Society to present him with an award.

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