A year after a ferocious fire killed 11 people at Quakers Hill Nursing Home, the people who led the rescue effort have been honoured at a ceremony in western Sydney.
Three elderly residents died during the inferno and eight died from injuries afterwards.
On Wednesday, the paramedics, nurses, firefighters and other emergency services workers who helped save lives on November 18, 2011, were recognised for their bravery at a ceremony at Schofields Fire Station.
Castle Hill Station Officer Brett Johnson, who led the first fire crew to arrive at the burning nursing home, told reporters the scene appeared calm at first.
"When we turned up, there was no sign of smoke, there was no flames out of the windows," he remembered.
Frantic nursing staff, who had already begun evacuating the frail nursing home residents, told the firefighters a fire was burning in one of the wings.
It was only after extinguishing that first fire that the crew realised the extent of the emergency.
"I noticed that the other wing was completely alight," Station Officer Johnson said.
"It's like a very slow, sinking, overwhelming feeling. Because we're in this industry, we had a very good understanding of what sort of tragedy was at hand then. I knew then that we had already lost lives."
After 14 years as a firefighter, he said, nothing had touched him more or would stay with him longer than the Quakers Hill Nursing Home fire.
NSW Ambulance Service Inspector Nathan Sheraton said his training got him through the chaos.
"You have firemen running out of the building in every direction with elderly residents on their arms, and people are groaning and screaming in pain," he told AAP.
"It can become quite chaotic. But we build this resilience; we remain calm ... we just put our heads down and we do what we are trained to do."
NSW Health Minister Jillian Skinner said the professionalism of emergency services staff saved dozens of lives that night.
But nursing home staff also deserved special thanks, she said.
"I thought it was very moving to see the nursing home staff honoured today and they were clearly very emotional," she said.
"They knew these people. They knew the residents."
Nurse's assistant Judith Watts, who isolated the initial fire and continued treating residents through the smoke and the panic, fought back tears as she accepted her commendation from Commissioner Mullins.
"I'm just grateful that it's being recognised finally," she told reporters afterwards, shaking with emotion.
"It means a great deal that everybody has recognised the job we've done."
Roger Dean, who worked as a nurse at the home, has pleaded not guilty to murdering the 11 people who died from the fire.
Dean has also pleaded not guilty to eight charges of recklessly causing grievous bodily harm to a further eight residents.