Wondai resident Winston Burrows with the official crash investigation report and newspaper clippings about the tragedy

A Journalist Remembers

by Heather McCallum

When I heard on Australia All Over that it was 30 years since the air crash in Wondai, I was transported back in time to that terrible day.

At the time, I was a journalist at the South Burnett Times and I have never forgotten hearing the phone ringing at 6:00am.

When you hear a phone ring outside “normal” hours you always feel it is a portent of bad news and my assumption was certainly not wrong.  It was the editor, John Cameron, telling me there had been an aircraft accident near Wondai aerodrome and I was tasked to go and cover the event.

With no other information, I set out in the office utility.

When I arrived at the aerodrome there was no one there but I could see a little bit of smoke rising from the direction of the end of the runway so I headed off and soon came across a couple of cars, including a police car at the side of the road.

You could not see the accident site from the road but you could see where the plane had sheared through the tall trees across the road from the end of the runway.

Graham Pollock, who was in charge of Wondai police, met me and took me into the property where the plane had come down.

It was devastating to see the result and we were all reeling from the situation as seldom had such a tragic event touched our community.

In addition to the Civil Aviation investigators there was a team of specialist police officers from the Disaster Identification group.

It was their painstaking task of ensuring everyone was positively identified.

These officers were very special and in my opinion, extremely caring in the way they went about their work.

I know they helped me cope with what I was seeing and they kept a watchful eye on how all the other local residents were dealing with the situation.

We did have a moment of “light relief” (if that’s even possible in a situation such as this) when the Brisbane media arrived. They arrived in their helicopters which were flying over the scene to “get footage”.

We could not believe they would fly over a crash site with the resultant downdraft from the choppers skewing results!

They arrived in their fancy suits and shoes and were then appalled they had to walk through a paddock over dusty, rough ground to get to the site.

I can recall how devastated Rayham Francis and Winston Burrows were by the crash after witnessing it, and talking to Rayham many years later it was still very raw.

It had such a terrible impact on the whole community and I know Wondai residents took it to heart and embraced the families whose loved ones had died.

I was honoured to attend the memorial service and even now when I drive past Wondai aerodrome I always relive that day.

Another outcome of that day was my photograph of the crash site was judged Best News Photograph of the Year at the Country Press Awards.

The plaque sits in honour on my mantelpiece, not for me, but for those who died so tragically that day.

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.

[UPDATED]

The plaque at the crash memorial just off Wondai-Proston Road
The crash memorial near Wondai Airport and (inset) the brochure from when the memorial was dedicated

[UPDATED with correction]


Tarong Community Partnership Fund - click here
Anderssons Fruit Market for quality fruits and vegetables

5 Responses to "Wondai Tragedy Won’t Be Forgotten"

  1. Greg Pomfret  July 22, 2020

    I have driven past the turn-off many times but never visited. Now I will make a trip out to the memorial site. Thanks to SB Online and Winston for telling the story as for years I wondered what happened there. Thank you for this slice of South Burnett history but any loss of life is very sad.

    Reply
  2. William Ferrier  July 24, 2020

    David Ferrier who died in the crash was my younger brother. It was doubly sad for our family as my older brother had been killed five months earlier in an horrific car crash on the Hume Highway in NSW.

    My wife and I have visited the crash memorial site a number of times over the years and would like to express our thanks to the Wondai community for their care of the memorial and remembering of the tragedy.

    Reply
  3. Bonny (Newton) Giddings  July 25, 2020

    I am one of Ken Newton’s daughter and will sadly not be able to attend the 30th anniversary as I’m in lockdown in Melbourne, but I’d like to thank all the people who attended the scene and continue to commemorate my dad’s and his colleagues’ lives. Forever in your debt.

    Reply
  4. Stephen Smith  July 25, 2020

    One of the victims, David Ferrier, was my closest friend and mentor. I too thank the local community for keeping the memory alive of all involved in the tragedy.

    Reply
  5. Leone Tuckett  July 26, 2020

    Very interesting and very sad. My heart goes out to you all.

    Reply

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