Hayden Griffiths barely had time to react when a petrol tanker jack-knifed and slid towards him.
The electrician was returning home from work four years ago when the horror scene unfolded in front of his eyes.
Now he has been awarded the Star of Courage after his heroic actions saved two lives.
Mr Griffiths, 25, said he was grateful for the recognition but also haunted by the events of the fateful day.
“I still feel regret from the accident, like maybe I could have done more,” he said.
“It’s something I speak to my family and friends about. They remind me of the good I did that day and I try to focus on that.”
The Quakers Hill man, who was raised in Eastern Creek, was driving alone on Mona Vale Road on October 1, 2013 when the fatal accident took place.
He barely managed to avoid the collision when a tanker carrying 34,000 litres of fuel lost control, tipped, hit several cars and burst into flames.
Though he was in shock, Mr Griffiths was the first rescuer on the scene, checking the driver of the car behind him before running to a van with four elderly people trapped inside.
He managed to wrench open two doors and comfort two female passengers as he carried them to safety. As more help arrived, he returned to the car to try to free the male driver and passenger still trapped inside.
“At that point I looked up and I realised the petrol tanker was leaking petrol, which was on fire and heading towards the car. The two men were still kind of unresponsive,” Mr Griffiths said.
He and another rescuer tried to open the doors from both sides but they were too badly damaged.
“I noticed the fire was getting close so I ran back around and tried to jump in the passenger side to help the driver. When I leaned in someone pulled me, and as soon as they pulled me back the car had caught alight.”
The young hero tried to help when a burning man escaped the wreck, but was again pulled back for his own safety.
The two men died at the scene, and six people were taken to hospital with injuries. The truck driver was later found guilty of negligent driving but avoided jail.
Mr Griffiths was one of just nine people this year awarded the Star of Courage, Australia’s second-highest civilian bravery award. Andrew Cochran from the Hunter region and three northern beaches men received the same honour for their actions during the incident.
Mr Griffiths, who was just 21 at the time, spoke to a psychiatrist about the incident, which changed his life dramatically. It took time for him to be able to drive again, especially around trucks, and he was startled by loud noises.
He and his family attended the funeral of one of the victims.
Mr Griffiths said his grandparents raised him to always help others whenever he was able.
His grandfather George Robson said he was not surprised when he heard of his grandson’s heroic actions.
“I was really proud of him running back and saving those people, because not many young people would do that or have the courage to do that. He risked his own life to go back and save those people,” Mr Robson said.
“We all went [to the award ceremony]. I don’t take days off many times but I took the day off, my wife and I and his sisters. It blew me away. Nearly brought me to tears, to be honest. I’m very proud of him.”