Aggie Krowka used to swim in the ocean every day.
But she has scarcely returned to open waters since March 30, 2016.
That was the day she watched her boyfriend pull a badly bleeding friend, Brett Connellan, from the water at Bombo Beach.
“Brett’s face was grey,” said Ms Krowka, a registered nurse at Wollongong Hospital. “He was in and out of consciousness. There was a pool of blood flowing out to sea. Without asking any more questions I knew what had happened.”
“We had left our mobiles in the car. I ran 500-600 metres to call an ambulance.
“I said, ‘we need a helicopter! We need blood! We’re going to lose him!’.”
Ms Krowka’s partner, Joel Trist, battled a rip and knowingly lingered in the presence of the shark that had attacked Mr Connellan in order to pull his badly injured friend to safety on his surf board.
Once on shore, he hailed down a passer-by – John Neville, another off-duty nurse - and the two men fashioned leg ropes into life-saving tourniquets, pulled tight around a gaping wound to Mr Connellan’s leg.
On Monday the life-saving trio traveled to Government House to receive certificates of commendation from the Lieutenant Governor of NSW.
The awards recognise those who have applied key lifesaving skills in emergency situations.
Ms Krowka said she was proud of how her partner – with no medical training and some squeamishness towards blood – had performed on the day.
While Mr Connellan has staged a remarkable physical recovery, returning to the sport he loves and claiming little psychological impact (in a paid interview with Women’s Day magazine, published in January, he said: “it surprises people I wasn’t afraid to get back in the water, but psychologically it hasn’t had that big an impact. I haven’t had nightmares about the attack), the attack plays on the minds of his rescuers.
“I’m not going to lie; I still get anxiety,” Ms Krowka. “I’ve been in the open water a handful of times since, but it’s basically in and out.”
“I always go down with Joel now though, and watch him surf.”
Ms Krowka and Mr Trist have noticed a greater awareness of sharks in their surfing community, with fewer surfers venturing out alone, or at dusk, since the attack.
It was six weeks before Mr Trist, a science teacher at Dapto High School, returned to the ocean for a surf competition. He has mostly resumed his usual surfing practices.
“I probably have a bit of a tendency to put my feet on my board a bit more when I’m sitting out the back,” he said. “I occasionally still have the odd shark dream – vivid things, from that event and different things.”
“Recently I had one where I was sitting out on the water and saw a few sharks swimming around.”
“But I don’t really think of it as a negative thing overall. Brett feels the same way. He’s just so lucky to come out of it the way he has. Sadly for a lot of people, that’s not the case.”
Trio’s act of bravery rightly recognised
The events on the night of March 30, 2016, remain firmly implanted on this region.
The date was the night the region had its first serious shark attack in decades.
After a moment’s shock on hearing the reports filter into the newsroom, the Mercury attended at the scene at Bombo to be greeted by a badly bleeding Brett Connellan being loaded into an ambulance.
What quickly became apparent over following days was the heroic acts of a few individuals, who together saved Brett’s life that fateful evening.
Take, for example, Brett's friend Joel Trist.
Despite the water being filled with blood and the shark being present, Joel swam towards his stricken mate and managed to drag him safely to shore.
Joel’s partner and registered Wollongong Hospital nurse Aggie Krowka watched the drama unfold, ran up the beach to raise the alarm with emergency services telling them “we need a helicopter! We need blood! We’re going to lose him!”.
And, by chance, another off-duty nurse, John Neville, who helped Joel fashion leg ropes into life-saving tourniquets to stem Brett’s bleeding.
Like it has the community as a whole, the night of March 30, 2016, has had a different lingering impact on each of the people involved.
Formerly a keen open water swimmer Ms Krowka said she these days rarely ventures into open water.
While Mr Trist has returned to his passion of surfing, the events of the night have certainly changed his awareness while in the surf.
For the victim Brett on the other hand, he’s made a remarkable recovery and showed little fear in getting back in the water and back to his surfboard.
On Monday, John Neville, Aggie Krowka and Joel Trist (pictured from left to right with Lieutenant Governor, the Hon. Thomas Bathurst, AC) were presented with certificates of commendation from the Lieutenant Governor of NSW at Government House for their acts of bravery.
Their certificates represent a life saved by their actions. That is an amazing honour to carry through life and something for which to be incredibly proud.
Congratulations to John, Aggie and Joel and to Brett for their amazing bravery and for being part of a happy ending to a night which will linger long in the memory of this region.