A father whose wife and baby son were killed in an arson attack has spoken out about how he rebuilt his life and found love again five years on.
A fire ripped through John O’Brien’s home in the Sydney suburb of Rozelle in September 2014, killing his wife Bianka, their 11-month old son Jude, as well as their neighbour Chris Noble, 27.
Adeel Ahmad Khan, who owned the convenience store below Mr O’Brien’s unit, deliberately torched his shop in a bid to get a $225,000 insurance payout.
He was later sentenced to 40 years in jail.
Reliving the harrowing day, Mr O’Brien told A Current Affair his worst nightmares came to life after seeing his home was reduced to rubble.
‘There was a gap where my house used to be, that’s when the shock hits you,’ he said.
A fire ripped through John O’Brien’s home in the Sydney suburb of Rozelle in September 2014, killing his wife Bianka (pictured on their wedding day)
Mr O’Brien has since found love with Michelle Mineham, a journalist who worked for the police press office at the time of the fire
Mr O’Brien’s baby son Jude was killed in the tragic inferno, along with his wife of two years Bianka
On the night the horrific fire tore through the convenience store and two adjoining apartments, the couple’s son Jude kept had them awake because he was sick.
Mr O’Brien’s life was spared only because he headed to work early at 3am, leaving Bianka at home with Jude.
He said he initially blamed himself for his family’s deaths.
‘You go through it over and over again… you think “I could have done this, I could have done that”,’ he said.
‘You hear these stories about heroes saving people from burning buildings, and you think “I could have done that” or at least died trying.
‘I did blame myself for a fair while there, but then if you’re real about it and you’re actually honest about it – there would have been four dead bodies there, not just three.’
John O’Brien’s life was spared after heading to work early at 3am, leaving Bianka at home with 11-month old Jude (right)
An explosion and flames tore through a shop on Darling Street, Rozelle, in the early hours of September 4, 2014
John O’Brien’s 11-month-old son Jude died in the fire that also claimed the life of his wife of two years Bianka
Before Mr O’Brien left their unit in the early hours of the morning, Bianka told him she thought she could smell spray paint.
But what the 31-year-old mother could actually smell was petrol, used by Khan to blow up the building.
After hearing news of the inferno, he rushed home from work to find his home in ruins.
He went to the nearest police station, where the magnitude of what had just unfolded sunk in.
‘I had to verbally say “my wife and son are dead” it’s even hard to say it now,’ he said, choking back tears.
‘That first day was very vivid, but the days following – I can’t remember certain days.’
Before Mr O’Brien left their unit in the early hours of the morning, Bianka told him she thought she could smell spray paint
Adeel Khan was found guilty of the manslaughter of 31-year-old Bianka O’Brien and her son Jude, and the murder of neighbour Chris Noble
Khan had set the fatal blaze in an attempt to secure a $225,000 insurance payout and owed $8,800 in rent and had an outstanding electricity bill of $3,345 at the time
Mr O’Brien said he wished he could crawl up into a ball and disappear.
‘You sit back and go ”what do I do now? What’s the point of working? What’s the point of getting up”?’
Instead of celebrating his first Father’s Day as a dad the following weekend, Mr O’Brien was preparing a statement for the media about his wife and son’s deaths.
‘She was an exceptional person. A wonderful wife and an even better mother,’ the statement read.
‘By far the proudest moment of my life was becoming a father. Jude had just started to walk and was only just discovering the world around him.’
Emergency services at the scene of the destruction after an explosion and fire destroyed a convenience store and units above
An SES crew member searches through rubble in the aftermath of the 2014 explosion that killed three
Khan protested his innocence throughout his trial, and told investigators that armed thugs had robbed his store before blowing it up.
However it didn’t take long for the arson squad to debunk Khan’s series of events.
Two nights before the fire, Khan was caught on CCTV buying 38 litres of fuel which he pumped into containers and used to torch his shop.
Firefighters and paramedics found Khan at the back of the burnt out building and managed to save him.
In the wake of the fire, Mr O’Brien found strength from the Homicide Victims’ Support Group and moved into a respite home south of Sydney. Pictured: Bianka and Jude’s shared burial plot
‘The hard, hard part of all that is they stopped ten metres short of my wife and son to save that guy there because he’s waving a piece of tube,’ Mr O’Brien said.
‘That’s very hard to handle’.
Despite needing to sit through every day of Khan’s painstaking trial, Mr O’Brien said listening to the torturous details of the night is ‘better than wondering’ about what happened.
In 2016, Khan was found guilty of the manslaughter of Bianka and Jude, along with the murder of Chris Noble, who became trapped in the bedroom of his apartment directly above the shop.
Khan was sentenced to 40 years behind bars, but Mr O’Brien said the ruling doesn’t bring him solace.
‘My family is dead, there’s nothing I can do,’ he said.
‘No matter what the verdict was, I’m still in the same spot as I always was since that explosion.
‘You can hate all you want, it doesn’t get you anywhere and that’s the hardest thing – it’s a real bitter pill to swallow at times because you just want to see him suffer a bit’.
In the five years since the devastating explosion, Mr O’Brien has found love again with Mineham (right), a journalist who worked for police media at the time of the fire
The couple are now doting parents to two young daughters, Abby and Millie
In the wake of the fire, Mr O’Brien found strength from the Homicide Victims’ Support Group and moved into a respite home south of Sydney.
Mr O’Brien said he feared he would never feel normal again.
‘I was thinking this could be something that haunts me for the rest of my days,’ he said.
‘I was so used to my wife and child… when that’s all gone, you have this awful time in the early hours of the morning where it’s just you.’
In the five years since the devastating explosion, Mr O’Brien has found love again.
He went on to marry Michelle Mineham, a journalist who worked for police media at the time of the fire.
The pair already knew each other through the gym, but after the fire Michelle stepped in as a shoulder to cry on
In a twist of fate, Michelle was also the person who helped Mr O’Brien write his statement following his wife and son’s deaths
The pair already knew each other through the gym, but after the fire Ms Mineham stepped in as a shoulder to cry on.
In a twist of fate, Michelle was also the person who helped Mr O’Brien write his statement following his wife and son’s deaths.
The couple are now doting parents to two young daughters, Abby and Millie.
‘It’s a new normal, but it’s my normal. This is my life now, this is great, I’ve got a life,’ Mr O’Brien said.
Despite starting afresh, Bianka and Jude will always be a part of the couple’s life.
‘It can be very hard to reconcile the fact that I’m so happy now and I’ve got a husband and I’ve got two beautiful children, because people died,’ Michelle said.
Sydney shopkeeper Adeel Ahmad Khan (pictured), who set fire to his ground-floor shop, killing three people in September 2014, was sentenced to 40 years jail
HOW THE TRIAL UNFOLDED
Adeel Khan deliberately torched his Rozelle store to collect a $225,000 insurance payout.
Bianka O’Brien, 31 and her 11-month-old son Jude were killed when the fire ripped the shop on Darling Street in Rozelle in the early hours of September 4, 2014.
Their neighbour Chris Noble, 27, was also killed after becoming trapped in the bedroom of his apartment directly above the shop.
While Mr Noble lived in the unit directly above Khan’s shop, the O’Briens were in an adjoining unit.
Khan’s trial heard he had debts of nearly $400,000 and wanted to get out of the lease on his failing shop.
The married father-of-three denied starting the fire, instead testifying that robbers tied him up, spilled fuel over the floor and left shortly before the blaze erupted.
Two nights before the fire Khan was caught on CCTV buying 38 litres of fuel which he pumped into containers.
He placed the containers around the shop before lighting them on fire in order to secure an insurance payout and avoid lease obligations.
He was buried under debris in the explosion, and told emergency workers who rescued him that he was sorry.
Khan was found guilty of the manslaughter of 31-year-Mrs O’Brien and her son Jude in 2016, along with the murder of Mr Noble.
Khan won’t be considered for parole until September 2044.