A celebrity who has always been on our level
This week I spent two days at a mining conference with Beaconsfield mine survivor Brant Webb, quickly discovering why he’s still mobbed six years on.
He’s not a victim. He’s not a hero either. He’s just a cracking bloke who refuses to be defined by the 14 darkest days of his life.
I was inspired by this unlikely celebrity, and wanted to share it with you…
After the Beaconsfield disaster, Brant Webb couldn’t catch a plane.
It had nothing to do with a fear of confined spaces. No – he was just constantly swamped by people wanting to wish him well, and never made it to a departure gate on time.
At his home in Beaconsfield, tour buses cruised past so passengers could take photos; whole families piled out of mini-buses to knock on his door; a quick trip for milk took over an hour.
As you’d expect, the attention wore him down – adding to the depression and post traumatic stress he suffered in the weeks and months after Australia’s most dramatic rescue.
The overwhelming ‘human interest’ got so bad that Webb’s wife Rachel rang the TV networks to ask for footage of the 14-day rescue operation.
It was only then that Webb fully understood the media circus that raged 925m above the tiny air pocket where he and Todd Russell spent an interminable 321 hours.
I must admit, by the time Webb and Russell were rescued from the Beaconsfield gold mine on 9 May 2006, I was fairly jaded by that 24/7 media blitz myself.
I cheered and cried with the rest of Australia when the men walked out alive, but it was a relief to turn off the TV and shut out the battle over exclusive interview rights.
So until this week I had no idea how the past six years have unfolded for a man who very briefly captivated the nation, or the after-effects of his terrifying ordeal.
When 100 tonnes of rock landed on the miners’ metal cage, Webb’s spine was compressed by five centimetres and the cartilage in his hips, knees and ankles shattered. (Despite years of being stretched, he’s still a centimetre shorter, and the pain in his legs has only just eased.)
Mentally, he went through the ringer, too.
The euphoria of being reunited with his wife and their twin teenagers quickly morphed into total paranoia about his own mortality, before slipping into depression over the futility of his existence as an unemployed miner with severe mental trauma and physical injuries.
“I couldn’t see any point in getting out of bed,” he says. “But after a while, Rachel spat it and told me ‘Get off your fat arse and earn some frickin money’.”
Not overly diplomatic, perhaps, but it did the trick.
The couple and their kids got counselling, and Webb’s friends and a GP mate began relentlessly hounding him to reveal everything about his underground nightmare.
The constant questions that were initially a curse proved to be Webb’s cure.
“My doctor told me I needed to tell my story, that’s the way I’d get over it – he said ‘I want you to tell your story 100 times in the next year’. He knew I needed a goal.
“The first time I spoke was at the pub. We closed off a room and there were all my mates and Rachel, the kids and my dad – I bawled, everybody bawled.”
Webb fell far short of his goal to speak 100 times that first year.
But really, he’s been talking ever since, to everyone from Vietnam veterans on the cathartic value of sharing grisly experiences, to miners about staying safe on the job for loved ones at home. And he still never says no to a chat in an airport.
“You can’t be arrogant to people who’ve cared for you and cried when you were finally freed,” he says.
“I never tell people I don’t have time to talk. Now I just say ‘You’re going to have to walk with me to the departure gate, mate’.”
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