‘You’re not f***ing dying here today'
It came at him like a missile, a dark shape across an underwater stretch of white sand, to the coral bombora on the Great Barrier Reef where Rick Bettua had just speared a Maori Sea Perch.
It came faster than he'd ever seen a bull shark move - pectoral fins down, spearing towards him the instant his trigger clicked.
He'd seen a million of them during his lifetime of diving. Often docile. Occasionally on the hunt.
This one was too aggressive for this time of day, for water this cool. It was NRL grand final day, exactly seven weeks ago. Everything about it was wrong.
He'd been diving for more than 50 years; had prevented one shark attack with a dead eye shot from his spear gun. And in 2017 his heroics had saved a mate who was gravely wounded in the jaws of a shark.
But Rick Bettua never, ever imagined he'd be bitten.
It was on him in an instant. He swung his spear gun, hard, and hit it.
It hit him harder - its jaws tearing him from knee cap to hip. It shook him, let go and bit again.
And he thought: F---, that thing just bit me! And again: It just f---ing bit me!
It fled just as quick, taking off in a cloud of blood.
That's when 32 years of military training kicked in. Decades of learning how to act in a crisis, how to rescue someone when every second counts. War zone stuff. Improvised explosive device injuries. Missing limbs.
Three minutes. Three minutes. Three minutes. That's what they'd been taught. Three minutes to save a life. Three minutes before you bleed to death.
He kicked to the surface, looking down to see if the shark was coming back. He saw only blood. There was so much blood he couldn't even see the fins on his feet.
His longtime mate and spear fishing partner, Peter Kocica, met him halfway, grabbing him by the arm to help him to the surface and over to the boat.
They clambered in, Rick using his arms and a heap of adrenaline to pull himself up and over.
The blood poured out of a wound so bad that Rick, with his years of combat training, knew exactly what it meant. Out here, miles from help. More than an hour from help. It wasn't like the last time, when both of them, blood soaked, had rescued a mate from a shark, strapped his leg and got him to shore. That day they'd been close enough to hope that he might make it.
"You've got three minutes," Rick told Pete, his voice calmer than he expected.
"Three minutes for what?" Pete asked.
"You've got three minutes to save my life."
THE first in a Swiss cheese series of miracles - events of luck or skill or good decision making that lined up to save a life - began with Rick himself.
Some people are good in a crisis. Rick spent decades training for it.
At the age of 17, Rick Bettua signed up for military service. He became a navy diver, then a master diver. When he retired as a disabled veteran, it was at the rank of master chief. He'd dived in dozens of countries, seen combat, saved lives and fallen out of the sky.
He based himself out of Hawaii and became well known in the spear fishing circuit, starting his own company - Aimrite - which produced some of the world's best spear guns.
In Florida, he met a Greek Australian woman named Angela - another spear fishing enthusiast. Eventually they'd move to North Queensland - South Mission Beach - where they decided to raise their two boys.
The Great Barrier Reef was on their doorstep and Rick had instant friends - Aimrite customers from Australia who promised to take him out diving. Pete was one of them.
"Rick actually saved me from getting attacked by a big bull one day," Pete said.
The 4m shark had ripped towards Pete. Lightning fast.
This big bull shark just opened his mouth up and was probably going to go for the fish but obviously it's right at me and my legs at that moment," he said.
"Rick actually leaned over and shot it in the head with the spear gun.
"I reckon if he didn't do that that day, it probably would have had my legs too."
FRIENDS FOR LIFE
Rick met Muay Thai Boxing trainer Glenn Jackson through the gym. Someone had suggested regular exercise might be good for the soul of a disabled veteran after decades of service.
Glenn taught Rick the martial art and Rick taught Glenn to spear fish.
Then, one day in February, 2017, Rick, Glenn, Pete and another friend took Pete's boat out off Hinchinbrook Island.
It was a little after 10am and Glenn, who'd just snagged a fish, was near the surface. A bull shark hit, multiple times, taking large bites out of his thigh and calf.
His mates got him out of the water and Rick, military training kicking into gear, used a weight belt as a tourniquet, securing it high and tight.
Pete powered into shore and made the awful phone call to Glenn's partner, Jessie-Lee.
"Jessie played it pretty cool, thinking it was a little shark bite. But then she started asking me if he was going to survive," he said.
"I told her I can't say. He's not in a good way."
Truthfully, Pete thought Glenn might die. His blood was everywhere and he'd turned grey.
Paramedics met them at the jetty and a rescue helicopter took Glenn to Cairns. He lived but he lost his leg.
Queensland Ambulance Service senior operations supervisor Neil Noble said at the time the tourniquet had saved him.
"This is a really good case where simple first aid can absolutely save a life and that's what happened," he said.
Pete sold his boat after that. He couldn't stomach going in the water and would give up spear fishing for more than three years.
"It's not that I'm scared of sharks, but it changes your whole perspective on life," he said.
F**K, NOT AGAIN
Three and a half years had passed when Pete finally got back in the water. It was this year and Pete had bought a new boat. He and Rick started heading out to the reef.
"We've dived together for years and I've always felt really safe with Rick," Pete said.
"We both dive the same, we both have the same ideas with spear fishing.
"That was probably my sixth or seventh dive back and I was just starting to enjoy it again.
"But then when it happened again, I thought, f … not again."
'I CAN'T BREATHE'
There had been four of them in the boat that day when Glenn was attacked.
On October 25 - with that critical three minutes between life and death for Rick - Pete had to do everything.
There wasn't much time and they were an hour and 20 minutes from Dungeness boat ramp.
Every move Pete made was life or death for his mate. If he panicked or took too long, if any small thing went wrong, Rick would die.
Pete got the tourniquet on. Rick didn't think it was tight enough, so Pete took another weight belt and tried tying that on too. It snapped.
They decided one would have to do and Pete set off the EPIRB and grabbed the radio.
"Mayday, mayday," he said. "Shark attack, Britomart Reef."
He had no idea whether anyone had heard him. He pulled the anchor - and for the first time that day it didn't get caught on anything.
"He asked me for his sat phone," Pete said.
"I passed it to him and kept driving. I knew he wanted to use it to ring Angela. But he lost energy and dropped it in the side pocket of the boat.
"He said, Pete, tell Ange and the boys I love them.
"And I said I will, but you can tell them yourself. You're not f … ing dying here today.
"And he said Pete, I can't breathe, I can't breathe.
"I told him just concentrate on breathing. I got to keep driving."
He kept going, full tilt, knowing they were far too far from shore for Rick to survive.
But that EPIRB sent its signal. Back in Townsville, the crew of the Queensland Government's Air Rescue Helicopter jumped into action.
HELP IS AT HAND
Paul Lambert's 7m Stagg cruiser was a miracle at sea.
Lambert and his mates hadn't planned on being at Britomart Reef that day but nothing had been biting at the wreck they'd stopped at earlier.
Skipper Paul and his friends Ben Reaves and Bastien Iezzi had settled on a section of reef to drop their lines. Nearby was a boat belonging to their mate Alex. There were no other boats in sight.
There were eight of them in total. They'd rented a house on the water at Lucinda for a boys' weekend.
Paul saw the smaller boat approach and thought it seemed odd. It was coming in fast and someone was waving at them.
A friend on Alex's boat radioed over. It was a shark attack, he said. They'd need Ben.
Dr Ben Reaves, a paediatric cardiologist, was the "over-achiever" in the group, according to Bastien.
Bastien's skill, according to Bastien, was his size - 203cm tall.
"They always call me the wookiee," he said. "I'm just really large, larger than life."
And what were the odds of this boat in this place. This boat in the middle of the ocean, miles from anywhere, with a doctor on board, a bloke big enough to lift a semiconscious man, a skipper with the skill to navigate a rough sea at high speeds and a radio that could have put them in touch with Papua New Guinea.
Pete pulled up his boat close to Paul and Paul told Ben to jump in. He'd close the distance quicker in the water and give Paul time to pull his boat around.
Pete was pleading with them to take his mate. Paul's boat would be faster. They were so far out and they were running out of time.
"This guy's got to go," Ben said from the other boat.
Paul, who'd earlier been worried about scratching his cruiser, saw the seriousness of the situation. He sped around and crunched his fishing boat into Pete's.
The wookiee grabbed hold and together they hauled a moaning Rick on board.
They told Paul to meet them at Dungeness and the cruiser roared off.
"I remember I tried to make Rick comfortable on the floor," Bastien said.
"He was in a fair bit of pain. I noticed his leg and in the wetsuit, there were massive bite marks there. I remember him grabbing my arm and hanging on tight."
TIME RUNNING OUT
Rick remembers everything. He remembers the pain, how hard it was to breathe. He remembers taking long deep breaths and picturing the faces of his wife Angela and their boys Troy, 10 and Derek, six.
He remembers the "big yeti guy" and his "giant paws" holding him down.
He remembers his reassuring words. We're 40 minutes out. We're 35 minutes out. We're getting you to help. Just hang on.
"It was horrendous," Rick said.
"It was the most pain I've ever been in in my life and I've been hurt, hurt and re-hurt.
"Because I was bleeding out, every time I would move or roll over onto my back, it was as if an elephant was standing on my chest and I couldn't breathe.
"It wasn't the nicest day. The wind had blown up in the afternoon, so we were just crashing through.
"Within maybe 10 or 15 minutes, my extremities were just numb. I was like a jellyfish on the floor."
He knew he had to hold on. His military training taught him to focus on his breathing. Long and slow. Slow the heart rate down.
"The bad thing was, I was smart enough to understand that after 45 minutes to an hour, I noticed that my breathing was shallow and quick and I knew exactly what was happening.
"I remember the boat getting calmer. The waves weren't bashing the boat so much.
"The only time it gets calm is when you're getting close to the boat ramp.
"It started getting calm and I was feeling good that I knew we would be at the boat ramp any second."
And then Rick Bettua's heart stopped beating.
THE RESCUE MISSION
Dr Ben Reaves and skipper Paul Lambert had been in constant radio contact with authorities.
And five minutes after handing Rick over, Pete had been able to make a Triple-0 call.
Pete's call was important.
The Queensland Government Air Rescue Helicopter had been gearing up for a retrieval based on Pete's EPIRB activation.
But the Triple-0 call had given them more information. They were now looking at a shark attack.
The crew grabbed Life Flight's critical care doctor David Humphreys, who joined them on board with four units of blood.
While Bastien tried to keep Rick comfortable, Paul and Ben worked with authorities on a plan.
They discussed sending a rescue boat to meet them.
"I said, look, we're 27 nautical miles out. The lady on the radio was really excellent. Very composed. They must have judged from the speed I was doing and the speed the rescue boat could do, it was best we keep going," Paul said.
Then they talked about winching a paramedic from the rescue helicopter.
But nothing would buy them more time. Even in calm conditions, winching a paramedic took time.
There was nothing more they could do for Rick but go fast.
But as conditions worsened, Ben told Paul to slow down. Rick was being bounced and jolted and it was causing his leg to bleed even more. They slowed, but soon after, Rick's heart stopped beating.
Ben told Paul to hit the hammer. They'd run out of time.
YOU MUST BE JOKING
Angela was home with their two sons when her phone started ringing.
"I've just transferred Rick to a bigger boat," Pete told her.
"He's been bitten by a shark."
"F--- off Pete. There is no way," Angela said. Pete was a prankster but this was a cruel joke. She knew he'd been affected by Glenn's attack.
"Angela, I am not joking. He's been bitten by a shark," he told her.
She asked him how bad it was. It's pretty bad, he told her.
"Peter, this is important," she said. "Do you think he's going to make it?"
He told Angela the same thing he'd told Jessie-Lee. He didn't know. He didn't think so. She'd better hurry. Get to the boat ramp. It didn't look good.
"I was thinking, OK, how am I going to tell my kids? Should I tell my kids? Who will take care of them while I rush over there?" she said.
"I felt panicked. Devastated for my kids. I was wondering if I had told him I loved him that morning before he left.
"You don't expect something like that would happen. Especially to Rick. His whole life has been about the ocean.
"Never, ever did I worry about him diving.
"So, when that happened to him, it was definitely panic, disbelief, just a rush to get to the ramp and hopefully see him. I just prayed the whole time that he was going to be OK."
A friend came to look after the children and another friend drove Angela to Dungeness. The trip took 90 long minutes. Long minutes of wondering whether her husband was alive.
Angela made it in time to see him off, to tell him she loved him. Nobody knew if he'd live. Certainly nobody thought he would.
ALL HANDS ON RICK
Every available paramedic was sent to the Dungeness boat ramp on a category one - lights and sirens.
Richard Brown, officer in charge of Halifax station, got on the road.
Alyah Ehierth and Alicia Locke were crewing together. They got moving but halfway there, the crew was diverted to Ingham Hospital.
The boat was still 45 minutes from hitting the boat ramp. It meant they could pick up emergency doctor Anne Hoske, a medical student, and importantly - two units of blood.
"If you can imagine, the response to this incident was magnitudinal," Alicia, an advanced care paramedic with six and a half years experience, said.
"There were multiple QFES (fire) crews, multiple QAS crews, police, everything was set up.
"Normally when we arrive on scene, we get out and go
"But we had time to discuss basically what our roles would be, what the plan would involve.
"Everything we do is quite systematic to make sure nothing is missed.
"And basically, everything played out as we'd discussed. Everyone knew what they were doing and it just happened."
There was no mistaking Paul Lambert's cruiser. It screamed into the jetty. Firefighters and paramedics got a lifeless Rick onto a stretcher and he was wheeled to the car park.
The massive team was so well set up, they'd even erected a marquee to give Rick shade.
Ingham's Dr Hoske had a line in and was pumping blood into the patient in less than a minute.
Ben helped with resuscitation. Rick wasn't breathing. They needed to breathe for him.
"What we did was, we removed the wetsuit to look at how bad the injury was," Alicia said.
"We cut it off with shears, so we exposed that left leg.
"As soon as we exposed it, we noticed that it was still bleeding.
"So what we did is we placed one of our combat tourniquets on top of the tourniquet that was already there."
It wasn't enough. Alicia packed the wound with Quikclot combat gauze - a bandage type product impregnated with a clotting agent.
Nobody could believe it when his heart started beating.
"It's actually really, really rare to get someone back from a traumatic cardiac arrest," she said.
"Like, incredibly rare. He is incredibly lucky."
They'd stopped the bleeding. They'd used the two units of blood. The rescue helicopter was landing, so they had more blood on the way.
Alicia was now putting pressure on Rick's femoral artery. She pushed her fist into his groin, ramming her full body weight down. She'd stay that way for 40 minutes. At times, a firefighter would hold her off the ground so she could bear down harder.
Rick regained consciousness.
"You're hurting my leg," he groaned at her. She knew it.
"I'm so sorry," she told him. "I can't stop."
She'd be sore for days from the effort. Her swollen hands a reminder of the part she'd played.
It took close to an hour to stabilise him enough to wheel him to the helicopter.
But the movement of the stretcher dislodged the clot and caused him to bleed again. Badly.
They used the rest of the blood. Dr Humphreys packed in more Quikclot.
They had nothing left to give. They had to get him into surgery.
'VERY BAD BITE'
Paul and Bastien sat in their bloodied boat at the ramp while nearby Ben worked shoulder to shoulder with the medical team.
They kept looking at each other in disbelief. Had that really happened?
"We didn't know if he was going to make it," Bastien said.
"I kept thinking, God, it felt like we worked hard to get him there, get him there quickly.
"We didn't have IV bags, we didn't have ways of intubating people, we didn't have a defibrillator.
"We were just going out fishing."
They watched as the helicopter took off and soon after Ben appeared.
"He sat down with us and said, hey, I think he's going to make it. I'm not sure if he'll keep the leg though, it was a very bad bite, but I think he's going to make it."
Bastien said while so many people played vital roles in saving Rick's life, perhaps none were as important as the role Pete played.
"Peter saved his life," he said.
"He pulled him out of the water, he tied the tourniquet, he set the EPIRB off, he looked for a boat to assist him and zoomed over.
"He didn't just sit there and wait for someone else to do it."
'YOU'VE GOT YOUR LEG'
Angela Bettua had been preparing to plan a funeral one moment and talking to her husband the next.
They'd prepared her for the worst. Her husband might have brain damage. He might have organ damage. He'd lost basically all his blood. Maybe he would have a bad reaction to the blood they'd pumped into him.
But doctors roused him from an induced coma to find him as sharp as ever. He knew where he was, what had happened. He reached down to his leg.
"You've got your leg," a nurse told him.
When he was fully alert, the hospital called her.
You can talk to him over the phone, a nurse said. He won't be able to talk back because of the tubes in his throat. But you can talk to him.
She told him how much she loved him, that she'd be right there. Just hold on for us. You'll pull through this. I'm on my way.
"Now cowboy the f … up," she told him. It was something he'd say to her, teasingly. She'd been dying for a chance to say it back.
Rick Bettua walks slowly, a brace holding up his foot. Nerve damage means he can't pick up his left foot, although surgeons hope to fix that in the coming months.
Thirty medical staff scrubbed up for surgery that day at Townsville Hospital, keen for a chance to put a leg back together that had been torn completely open by a massive shark.
The rotors on the helicopter were still turning when hospital staff threw more blood to the LifeFlight doctor. They started transfusing right there while still on-board. Then they rushed him past emergency straight into theatre.
He'd have 14 units of blood in all - more than the average person has in their entire body.
Today, a wide red band runs up the back of his leg where a large skin graft - taken from his back - is still healing.
The front of his leg looks exactly as you'd imagine - a scar the shape of a 4m bull shark's jaw carves along it.
It doesn't feel the same. Muscles aren't quite there and nerves fire strangely. But Rick is incredibly grateful.
Three days ago he walked into the back of the Townsville Ambulance Station, Angela and their two boys by his side.
Waiting in the shed by a row of parked ambulances were many of the people who had saved his life.
One by one, Rick approached them.
"What did you do?" he asked each one. This was the blank he wanted filled. The part he doesn't remember. He wanted to thank every one of them for the role they played.
"It's the big guy!" he laughed, spotting Bastien.
"I never really saw your face. I just saw your paw on my chest."
"It's good to see you, man," Bastien said. "Oh man. You look so much better than last time I saw you."
Next was Alicia. The paramedic who spent 40 minutes compressing his femoral artery with her fist. He hugged her tight.
"I did a bit of everything," Alyah told him. "I cut your pants off."
The group laughed. "Sorry!" she called over to Angela.
Richard, the officer in charge of Halifax station was next.
"I was actually at the one in Cardwell as well," he said, referring to Glenn's shark attack.
"So you and Peter really need to get another hobby. Buy some rollerskates."
He moved on to the Life Flight doctor, David Humphreys.
"You did a lot," Rick said.
"The team did a lot," David replied.
"I was bagging you, breathing for you."
"I had my fist in your groin for the whole trip," rescue crew officer Scott Mellor told him.
"I flew you there as quick as I could," pilot Nick Kelly said.
Aircrew officer Darrell Donnelly, the helicopter's winch operator, explained to Rick how critical Pete's Triple-0 call had been.
"When we first got the call, it was a beacon," he said. "The doc wasn't coming. It was a beacon search. And then it unfolded you'd been attacked. And the whole thing changed."
Rick hugged every one of them.
"If any one of you didn't do what you did, then I wouldn't be here today," he said.
He gathered his boys in front of them so his rescuers could see them.
"The best thing I can leave you with are these two little boys," Rick said.
"So they don't have to grow up without me.
"And it's because of you. You can take that away. You did save me - but you also saved them from growing up without a dad.
"And I really, really, really appreciate it."
BACK IN THE WATER
Pete went out to the reef again this week. He didn't want to wait another three years before finding the nerve to return to his great passion.
He stayed shallow at first, looking for crayfish. When he didn't find them, he swam deeper.
"I just dived down, picked up three trout and left," he said.
"There were sharks coming in. After seeing what I've seen a couple of times, it is pretty scary."
He's uncomfortable with the hero label but sometimes he plays it up for fun.
"It comes down to a minute or two and your mate's bleeding out on the floor.
"You just know that if you don't do something, he's dead.
"I'm no hero, I just did what I had to do. He'd do the same. That's just life."
Rick will get back in the water too. He's been talking to a company in the process of testing a shark proof wetsuit.
He says the fabric has been tested on a white pointer to some success.
When he has a shark proof wetsuit, Rick will be back on the reef.
Whether Pete gets an invitation remains to be seen.
"To be honest with you, I don't know if I'm ever going to dive with him again," he laughed.
Originally published as 'You're not f***ing dying here today'