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Torres Strait boat tragedy a devastating mystery

By Aaron Smith

IT is unlikely the exact cause of last week’s devastating boating tragedy will ever be known, says Queensland Police.

The drama began when a family of five from Duaun failed to return home by dinghy last Wednesday evening, July 31. A massive

search and rescue effort was conducted with police, volunteers, TSIRC, TSRA and PNG rangers throwing everything they had to try

and find them.

Queensland Police Torres Patrol Inspector told Torres News: “We will never know the secret of exactly what happened.”

Whatever did happen, police think it happened fast as a ‘grab bag’ containing life jackets, fl ares and an EPIRB was found floating unopened, as was a child’s life jacket and a large esky.

The seven metre banana boat was found some 5km from Dauan Island semi-submerged with the anchor out.

The group comprised two men, aged 22 and 44, two women, both aged 21, and a nine-year-old boy. The family never made

it home to Dauan on the evening of July 31, after leaving Seisia that morning and stopping briefl y at Badu Island.

“Whatever did happen, it’s just very sad,” Insp Lingwood said.

“Survivability was rated as 20 per cent for the adults and zero for the child by Friday morning, August 2, – and that’s pushing it –

but you always hope so we stayed out there.”

The Cairns-based aerial search finished 2pm Friday, but QPS kept choppers in the air until Sunday.

QPS officially ended the search on Sunday evening August 4.

Insp Lingwood said: “While Police are not searching anymore, and we are reporting the matter to the coroner, we understand  families

and community continue to search – we do ask people still searching to please stay safe.”

Officer-in-Charge of Thursday Island Water Police, Sgt Andrew Howie said the search effort was hampered by 1.5 to 2m swells, constant 25-30 knot winds, and overcast skies with rain showers.

“Everyone moved everything and did everything possible, but it was howling out there,” Insp Lingwood said.

Boy’s body not from missing group Insp Lingwood said that PNG authorities confirmed this week that the body of a boy found washed up at Old Mawatta Village in PNG’s Western Province was not from the missing family from Dauan.

PNG Police said that a boat with an adult male and two youths from the Western Province had been reported missing on Sunday August 4.

“PNG police have confirmed the body washed up at Old Malwatta was associated with the other boat, and another body from

that boat has also washed up,” Insp Lingwood said.

Insp Lingwood was not sure if the third missing body from that boat has been located.

“While this has not happened in our waters, it still impacts our community, as families are interwoven. I don’t know for sure but I believe this second boat may have gone missing around the same time, but was only reported yesterday (Sunday, August 4).”

Police pushed to the limits Officer-in-Charge of Thursday Island Police, Snr Sgt Allison Williams said her husband, Sgt Andrew Howie, who is in charge of Thursday Island Water Police, was “wrecked” at 9am on Monday August 5, “when he fi nally walked through the door at home after being on the Handran (police boat) since Friday morning.”

Snr Sgt Williams said: “Both the Handran and the [police boat] Olive that were tasked to the search started travelling back to TI on

Sunday night, but had to stop at Badu due to the seas and weather being so dangerous.

“My husband is as solid as a rock and very calm in a crisis and when he rang me last night, I could hear the seas crashing in the background. It makes you respect the ocean – you can be the best mariner but the ocean can be a force of its own – it must have

been so frightening. Also a lot of the water where they went missing is uncharted.”

Insp Lingwood said: “We all exhausted all assets searching; our aerial pilots used up nearly all their fl y time searching.
“We pushed the police boat the Olive up there for the fi rst time – it has a range roughly from here to Badu and back, but with the help of TSRA and TSIRC we were able to source fuel in the Outer Islands and keep going, which had never beendone before.
“At 1am at Saibai, you’ve got locals winding the fuel pump out of drums to fuel the Olive.”

Snr Sgt Williams said: “Mark Eaton from Horn Island and Thomas Pedro from TI jumped on the Olive and left from TI.
They didn’t even have a change of clothes or a toothbrush, they were in that much of a hurry to get up there.”
“Also Sen Con Chris Mosby was on patrol the working the whole time.”
Community support overwhelming Snr Sgt Williams said its not only the Water Police crew who pulled out all
stops in the search but also a groundswell of community support including TSRA Rangers, PNG Rangers and TSIRC 
“Everybody from those communities were out everywhere searching – and I guarantee many will still be out there searching.”
“Dauan TPISO Wretch Mau did a fantastic job, and Aaron Binawel, Bamaga PLO was also amazing and Dauan TSIRC Cr Torenzo Elisala and Brad Pabai but in an unbelievable effort.”
Snr Sgt Willimas said: “For people struggling out there, please reach out for help – there are support systems out there
in place.”