One autumn morning in May 1919, Frederick Zahra, a storeman and first aid officer at Mortlake Gasworks, became aware of a commotion at the nearby tar stills. As he ran towards the huge tanks he could hear shouting and cries for help. Reaching the scene he became aware that there were four men trapped inside. Michael Carrig, a boilermaker, had been carrying out repairs in the tar-stills when he was overcome by a sudden rush of fumes. His mate Herbert Allen heard his cries for help and, raising the alarm, rushed to his assistance. James Crombie, a still man, attempted a rescue but suffered the same fate. Fred Martin, an engineer’s striker, then volunteered to help and, after tying a rope around his waist, was lowered into the tank. Martin was also overcome by the deadly fumes and had to be pulled out.
Without hesitation Frederick Zahra tied a rope around his waist and asked to be lowered into the still. Three times he descended into the tank and each time was successful in recovering one of the stricken men. For two hours efforts were made to revive the men but this was in vain. Martin later recovered.
For their outstanding courage both Zahra and Martin were awarded the Royal Humane Society’s Bronze Medallion and Certificate. James Crombie was also posthumously awarded the Bronze Medallion. Frederick Zahra’s Certificate is held by the Canada Bay Heritage Museum.
The death of the three brought an outpouring of public grief. Workers at the gasworks raised £350 for the widows and children of the men. An inquiry found no fault could be attached to the Australian Gaslight Company. The company nonetheless made the maximum payment under the Workmen’s Compensation Act while the Federated Gas Employees Industrial Union helped pay for Crombie’s headstone.
Frederick Zahra received a small endowment from AGL. He continued working for the company as chief storeman for another 25 years.