Aaron Bunch Journalist with Australian Associated Press | Collection of published work | + 61 484 008 119 | abunch@aap.com.au

Aaron Bunch
Qld trawler diver found body by touch

An inquest in Gladstone investigating the deaths of six fishermen lost off the Queensland coast has heard police divers found two bodies by touch.

March 27, 2019

A Queensland police diver who found the first of six missing men after a fishing trawler capsized had to push aside floating mattresses, kitchen gear and ropes as he felt for bodies, an inquest has heard.

In the “blackest of black” water, Senior Constable James Hall was forced to rely on touch as he explored the flooded cabin after FV Dianne sank off the town of 1770 on October 16, 2017.

He said he spotted a foot behind a fridge he was fighting to move from the bunkhouse door.

“I could see a couple of toes. I told topside I could see a foot, so we knew had one body in there,” he told an inquest in Gladstone on Wednesday.

Senior Constable Hall said when he finally pushed the wedged fridge from the accommodation cabin’s only exit, he found the body of Adam Hoffman, 30.

The body of skipper Ben Leahy, 45, was located on the following dive.

The bodies of Eli Tonks, 39, Adam Bidner, 33, Zach Feeney, 28, and Chris Sammut, 34, have never been found.

Senior Constable Hall said despite being experienced seaman and divers, the crew would have been “incredibly” disoriented after the boat rolled upside down in darkness.

“Turn it upside down, flood that room and shake it all about and then have large objects moving around, your world is completely gone from what you know – you can’t see anything,” he said.

“It’s like vertigo … you don’t stand a chance.”

Emergency lighting near the exits would have given the crew a chance, he said.

The sole survivor, Ruben McDornan, told the inquest they had delayed departure from Bundaberg harbour due to bad weather.

“There were concerns by Ben Leahy … he arranged for us to leave a day later,” he said.

The vessel began motoring north to fishing grounds near Middle Island about 2.30pm in windy conditions.

Five hours later it had rolled and six crew members were missing.

Mr Aberdeen said the vessel had all the correct safety gear, but none of it worked when needed.

“The capsize was complete in a matter of seconds (and) although there was an EPIRB on the rear wall of the wheelhouse, it could not be reached by anybody,” he said.

There was no time to put on life jackets, or to pick up grab bags with marine survival equipment, and an automatically deploying life raft failed to fire, he said.

Mr McDornan agreed with coroner David O’Connell that emergency lighting and grab bags with dive masks and mini oxygen tanks stowed in sleeping cabins – for easy access in the case of an emergency – would be a good recommendation to come from the inquest.

“That was exactly what was needed … that’s a small cost for what I believe to be an absolute must item,” he said.

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