July 22, 2020
Just off Wondai-Proston Road, a small track leads to a lonely monument marking the moment that five men lost their lives in a fiery air crash.
The tragedy, on July 26, 1990, rocked the close-knit town of Wondai and has never been forgotten by the people who rushed to help on that terrible, moonless Thursday night 30 years ago …
The crash of the Beech King Air E90 killed pilot Tony Hammett as well as businessmen David Ferrier, Jim Brady, Ken Newton and Peter Weir.
One man survived – vet Jim Della-Vedova – thanks to the heroic efforts of the first people on the scene.
The aircraft crashed at 10:48pm, seconds after taking off from Wondai Airport.
It had landed about an hour earlier to discharge a passenger, Moffatdale grazier Rayham Francis, who had been taking part in the same business trip to North Queensland as the four other passengers.
The plane had then been refuelled, the passengers reboarded and it taxied ready for take-off on its way to Camden, NSW.
Ironically, one of the passengers – Peter Weir – had suffered a serious injury in a previous plane crash and was wary of flying. But he had declared he was now “over it” before boarding the fateful flight in Cairns.
Wondai resident Winston Burrows takes over the story:
“(Pilot) Tony had been to Wondai on numerous occasions. In fact he called it ‘Wondai International Airport’. He was a terribly nice fellow.
“I was the local fuel distributor and I was asked by Tony to supply fuel for the plane. I knew he was coming sometime between 9:30pm and 10:00pm.”
Winston went to the airport and waited for the aircraft to arrive.
It landed without incident and Mr Francis got off. The other passengers also alighted and stretched their legs while the plane was being refuelled.
“Tony was absolutely meticulous,” Winston recalled.
“He apologised because he only wanted four drums of fuel, not the six he had ordered.”
After the drums were checked and the refuelling completed, the pilot and four remaining passengers got back on board.
“Rayham – although I didn’t know his name then – was standing beside me as it happened.
“I can still see the plane. It went out to the taxiway and parked there for a while as I assume Tony did his checks.
“Then he revved the motors up and down and took a left turn to the end of Runway 18.
“He took off on Runway 36, and – just as I expected around the 800-900m mark – it lifted off and went well into the air.
“I could see a gap between him and the treeline.
“I turned away. I expected to see the plane bank around to the left.
“But the next thing, I heard a ‘thump’, looked up and saw one ball of fire.
“To this day I still see the ball of flames above the trees.
“Rayham and his driver took off immediately. They found Jim up against a tree. They began putting out the fire with their hands.
“I began organising the firefighters, police, ambulance and hospital, all from out there.”
Emergency crews were on the scene within minutes.
Winston, quickly joined by his fellow firefighters – it had been a training night earlier – worked to extinguish the flames from the crash while Wondai Hospital prepared to receive multiple casualties.
Sadly, there was only one survivor.
Dr Patrick Lip worked to save Mr Della-Vedova at the crash site.
“One of our firefighters, Trevor Ogden, went with Jim in the ambulance to Wondai Hospital,” Winston recalled.
Mr Della-Vedova was then flown out of Wondai to Brisbane by the State Government’s emergency helicopter for further treatment.
* * *
Killed in the crash were:
- The pilot, former Army officer Brigadier Anthony William Hammett AM, of Griffith, who was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1976 for exceptional performance of duty. The Vietnam veteran was the commanding officer of the 6th Battalion which helped in the Darwin clean-up after Cyclone Tracy. He also represented Australia at the 1960 Rome Olympics in pentathlon.
- Property developer James Brady, 50, of St Mary’s.
- Corporate solicitor David Ferrier, 46, of Turramurra.
- Accountant Peter Weir, of Blacktown.
- Agricultural Technologists of Australasia Ltd consultant Kenneth Newton, 55, of Gympie.
The passengers had been planning to collaborate in a new agricultural business venture at Mareeba.
* * *
The 30th anniversary of the tragedy will be commemorated in Wondai on Sunday.
The ceremony was organised after Isobel Ferrier, daughter of crash victim David, told Wondai residents she planned to come up and visit the memorial.
The town swung into action again to make the visit especially memorable.
Local pastor Cam Rub will conduct a small ceremony at the crash memorial from 11:45am.
Ms Ferrier will be joined at the site by other relatives of the crash victims as well as the remaining first responders who attended the tragedy, and other Wondai residents.
Many of the people involved 30 years ago are no longer alive … including Sgt Graham Pollock, Mr Francis and Mr Della-Vedova.
Anyone who would like to attend the memorial service, or refreshments afterwards at Wondai Diggers Club, have been asked to phone Winston Burrows on (07) 4168-5543.
“It will be a little thanksgiving for the people who were lost, their families and also a thank you to the emergency services and organisations that reacted to the tragic accident,” Winston said.
COVID-19 precautions will be followed, including registering and maintaining social distancing.
- Download: Accident Investigation Report (8.41Mb PDF)
[UPDATED with correction]