He towers 1.9 metres high and tips the scales at 140 kilograms. With his solid frame and thick, grey beard he cuts a striking impression of an outlaw bikie. Yet, Trevor Burns is a mild-mannered data analyst from Brisbane, father to two adult children Megan and Anthony, and husband to Julie.
He insists he’s an ordinary bloke. And an ordinary bloke he may be.
To Elyse Frankcom, however, Mr Burns is a bearded gentle giant with nerves of steel, who plucked her limp body from the depths of the ocean, giving her a second chance at life. Mr Burns was living and working in Perth when he decided to treat his wife and daughter to an encounter with wild dolphins.
“It was a beautiful sunny day,” he recalled of the October morning in 2010. “A bit cool … but wet suits cover that.” The family set out for dolphin waters off Green Island Naval Base, about 35 kilometres north of Port Kennedy, with Rockingham Wild Encounters. Ms Frankcom – then just 19 years old – would be their guide and “dolphin girl” responsible for enticing the playful creatures close. “It was perfect,” Mr Burns said. “We got in the water and there were dolphins everywhere.” Towards the afternoon, others on the tour became weary. But not Mr Burns, despite having slipped on the deck and unwittingly cracked three ribs. “I was loving it,” he said.
Ms Frankcom would take one more group into the water, where she would lead a conga-line of snorkelers with cameras at the ready into the deep. She would duck and dive and twirl about to attract the pod, while the tourists floated on the water’s surface behind her. On this occasion, she was in the process of befriending two dolphins and their newborn.
“But they kept disappearing,” Mr Burns said. “They’d come back and then disappear again. Little did we know they were telling us, ‘get the hell out, because there’s something in the water’. “Elyse, she was swimming around, trying to entice the dolphins to stay.
“As she’s come up, she’s come up into our group. I’ve had my hand out with the camera, and just as she’s taken a breath that’s when a grey figure has come through.”
It was a Great White.
“The first thing I thought was ‘freight train’, because it was just barrelling through.” The beast latched onto Ms Frankcom’s leg and bottom. “I saw it do a double bite on her and I just screamed in my head to get it off her. From then on, all hell broke loose.” Mr Burns grabbed the shark’s tail, preventing it from getting a purchase on her body. The pair was thrashed by the deadly predator and clouds of blood filled the water around them. “I was getting thrown around. She disappeared. I couldn’t see her – there was too much blood in the water … It was so close, all I could think was to try to grab it.
“She’s punched it in the nose, so she wasn’t giving up. It’s then released, because of what the two of us were doing and she’s then turned on her Shark Shield (the world’s only proven electronic shark deterrent).” “It’s then taken off.” Meanwhile the boat’s shark sirens sounded, sending other snorkelers in the water scrambling for safety. Mr Burns’s wife Julie was with their daughter Megan. The pair watched on in horror from the boat’s top deck as Mr Burns’s body was thrown about in the water, believing it was him that was under attack.
“I stayed face down in the water looking for [Elyse], because I knew [that] whatever happened she was going to need help,” Mr Burns said. “The blood cleared and I could see her. She was well down below me. The water I think was at least 10 metres deep and she was a good seven, eight metres down.
“The face mask was off and she still had her weight belt on and she was making no effort to come back up. “So I’ve duck-dived down to get her and as I’m bringing her back up I’m [wondering] … what can I do when we get to the top until the boat gets us. “But thankfully, when we broke the waters surface, she started breathing immediately. So, one problem solved.”
It was at that time Ms Frankcom regained consciousness. “I looked behind me … and I just saw this big white beard and instantly I just felt comforted,” she said. “I knew I was safe. I’d never met him, but I knew he was going to take care of me.” Mr Burns carried Ms Frankcom to the boat, where there happened to be a registered nurse and a paramedic on board. He then stayed in the water until all the other snorkelers were out and safe.
On board, Ms Frankcom’s first thoughts were for the children on board. “The first thing she said was, ‘get the kids up the front, I don’t want them to see this’,” Mr Burns said. The ocean-loving teenager was airlifted to hospital, where her doctors stopped counting at 200 stitches.
Less than six months later, Ms Frankcom returned to the ocean for the first time with her hero. “He’s the most selfless human being I’ve met,” she said. “He put his own life at risk for a stranger. He saved my life. If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be alive today. “When I talk to people about him, I just praise on the fact how much of a kind human being he his. He really restores your faith in mankind, and there’s not many people out there like him. “I’m eternally grateful for everything he did that day. There’s no way I could ever put an amount of words on how I feel about him.”
The hero tag does not sit well with Mr Burns though. “I’m very happy, I’m proud of what I did. But hero is too often thrown around. And I don’t feel any different now than I did before,” he said. “She was in dire straits and she needed help. “My parents brought me up to do the right thing. And Dad always told me to stay calm, never panic and you’ll always do the right thing.”
Ms Frankcom has returned to work in the water, and Ms Burns has bought a new wetsuit to take snorkeling off the Queensland coast over the Easter long weekend. “I’m not insane enough to think that they’re [sharks] are safe,” Mr Burns said. “I respect them for what they can do. But stopping me going in the water? No.”
For Ms Frankcom, it’s her love of the ocean that has her returning to the water. “I grew up in the ocean,” she said. “I need the ocean.” Mr Burns has been awarded the Star of Courage for his rescue of Ms Frankcom.
March 25th 2013 – Reported in the Brisbane Times by Marissa Calligeros