Each year at this time, Tim Britten feels a deep, lingering pain emanating from his extraordinary role in the response to the Bali bombings of 2002.
Hailed a hero for his courageous rescue attempts in the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks and now a Senior Sergeant with WA Police, he says the annual anniversary brings a sensory overload he expects will be with him for life.
“You can never fully come back from this,” Sen. Sgt. Britten told The West Australian. “The attack in Bali is always on the edge of my conscious being, it’s always just there and I can be back there in seconds.
“It’s in my head and everything is still fresh. I can still smell it and even taste it in the back of my throat. It’s always going to be raw.”
Britten was working with the United Nations in East Timor at the time of the bombings, but was in Bali that night and just 800 metres from the popular nightclubs that were at the centre of the attack.
He seconded Tasmanian man Richard Joyes, then a 23-year-old geologist, from out on the street to help him try to retrieve whoever they could — dead or alive — from the burning disaster area.
The police officer is one of only five recipients of the Cross of Valour, Australia’s highest civilian bravery decoration, for his selfless actions during the crisis. But the nation’s most decorated cop says his Cross represents every person involved, the heroes and the victims.
He recalled carrying victims out of the burning Sari Club by fireman’s lift (over his shoulder) and was buoyed by the way Joyes, who lost a close friend in the incident, comforted those they were trying to save.
“One of the nice things is that for some of these people, the last thing they would have heard was a kind Australian voice,” he said.
He said reliving the frantic steps he and Joyes took to try and rescue people came back to his thoughts way too easily. He was unsure if one victim the pair managed to bring out of the Sari Club on the third attempt, leading to their bravery honours, survived.
“We stuck together for an hour-and-a-half working together non-stop doing what we could,” he said. “I don’t know how you could be trained for that sort of thing, but as a policeman you’re sworn to protect people and do your best for people.
“There were some very badly wounded people … I’d like to think some of them we helped survived. I’d put them on my back and ‘Rich’ would hold them together and talk to them as we took them up to the truck.
“I put one woman down and he’d been talking to her, holding her head and comforting her and saying she was going to be OK. We got there and put her on the truck and the nurse said she’d already passed. She died on my back while he was talking to her.”
As much as Britten would rather never talk about what he saw, heard and felt ever again, he has revealed that his respect for the truth-telling from survivors of the Holocaust during World War II has prompted him to help make sure the real stories of that terrible night in Bali are never lost or distorted.
“It’s important that the story doesn’t get lost,” he said, recalling how he felt a shower of glass hit him after the blast.
“It’s now 20 years since the attack and people who are going to university now — and even getting close to graduating or have graduated — they weren’t alive when this happened. I went to the Holocaust museum in Sydney and the old people who are still talking about the survivors, they say it is so important to them to keep the story alive.
“That’s their life’s work now, to never let it fade from the human mind that this horrible event happened. I’ve thought about that and I agree. It gives me no pleasure to talk about it, but I feel like it’s an obligation to do so.
“While people who were there are still able to, I think it’s important to keep educating younger people about what happened. It’s not just a couple of memorials scattered around, these were real families and it’s important we show our respect like we do on Anzac Day for the fallen.”
And that’s where Britten feels emotionally hardest hit.
While he received burns up his left arm to his shoulder and suffered cut feet after running into the mayhem in his typical Bali attire of shorts, singlet and thongs, passing time has brought a deeper empathy for the families who suffered hurt that will never heal.
“They suffered real pain and are still suffering that pain,” he said. “There are people out there who are never going to become grandparents, there are people out there who have missed their son or daughter’s 18th, 21st or 30th birthdays.
“They’ve missed the opportunity to watch their children become successful and it always resonates with me just how much people have lost and how many families in this country have suffered because of this terrible act.
“I’ve gone through my dramas of nightmares, but no one knows their pain. Their future has been stolen and they’ve lived like this for 20 years.”
Britten said he tried to limit confronting his horrific memories to once a year, at about the time of each anniversary of the attack. He allowed himself to feel “profoundly sad” at that time as part of his own healing.
It is then that he recalls how Australians at the scene united in selflessness to help. Many of them did it unquestioned, despite the threat of them also perishing if another bomb had been detonated, as is common in such attack strategy.
He admitted acutely feeling his own threat of death.
“Something I’m so proud of is the way Australians just materialised from everywhere . . . that’s just being a good human,” Britten said. “People were on holidays and could have gone the other way, but they didn’t, they gave up their time and it was so incredible.
“Even the people who were in pain, the bravery that night from those who were wounded, were some of the bravest things I’ve ever seen in my life and I will never forget that. People kept themselves so calm and controlled when they were just broken so badly. That still chokes me up, now.”
Britten, who initially thought the blast was someone attempting to blow up a bank safe, said he and Joyes had since built a strong friendship, like a brotherhood.
He said his support network, led by wife Shannon, had been vital in pushing him forward in life. He has been back to Bali a handful of times since the attack and is in Bali as part of the 20th anniversary commemorations.
But he knows that, too, will not be easy.
“This time seems worse than others and I’ve had some emotional periods in the past couple of weeks,” he said. “But I always wanted to go back and be there at the actual time.
“It’s 20 years, and to be there on that date and time, with my wife and kids, it’s important to me. And I’m hoping it might put a few things to sleep.
“The Balinese are also just magnificent, kind, gentle and loving people. They are wonderful people and I’m so glad Australians, and particularly West Australians, keep supporting them so well. I love them.”
Despite his affection for the locals, the vivid reminders of that dreadful Saturday night 20 years ago were never far away.
“Although I don’t want to watch everything that’s on the TV, I can’t help it,” he said. “The TV is always orange and flames and burnt-out cars.”
And those images of flames bring back the bitterness towards those who created such carnage.
“We’re human beings, God help us if there are aliens out there watching how we treat our own people,” he said.