Courier Mail, The (Brisbane), 17/02/2007, p68

Westralia survivors just want the truth, writes Amanda Gearing

DRAMATIC revelations this week that the Defence Department was warned of impending disaster three months before a fatal fire aboard HMAS Westralia have persuaded one of the central figures in the event to come forward.

Petty Officer Max Francis was the last man to emerge alive from the inferno in the engine room of Westralia on May 5, 1998.

Francis, a Navy serviceman for 17 years, this week claimed his evidence of what happened that day was questioned by the Navy because it showed they knew sailors were still in the engine-room when the only exit door was shut and it was flooded with carbon dioxide to quell the fire.

On the day of the fire, Francis, a marine engineer, heard a distress call that fuel was leaking in the engine room and rushed to help.

“A fuel line was leaking. There was fuel everywhere. It was on the deck plate and dripping off the pipes,” he said. “We turned to see the starboard main engine was on fire. It all went dark. The
smoke was that thick you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. Visibility was zero. I knew there were quite a number of people in there. I didn’t know exactly how many.”

Francis could hear midshipman Megan Pelly screaming and knew the only way to get her out was to get her up one floor to the only exit door.

“She had only been on the ship for a matter of days and I recognised her as someone who would not have a clear understanding of how to get out.

“I was trying to feel my way in the dark. Then I couldn’t hear the screaming any more. I was choking and coughing. I can’t remember thinking to myself if you stay here you’re going to die or it’s
time to get out. I just remember finding the ladder. I made it to the exit door and it was closed. I collapsed against the door.

“I couldn’t get the door open. One of the seniors heard the door rattle and reached in and grabbed me.”

As medics gave him oxygen and tended to his burns, Francis took out a notebook and quickly wrote down the names of seven sailors who he thought were still in the engine room.

“I thought they might do a snatch-and-grab using breathing apparatus to get them out,” he said.

The anguish of knowing his mates perished has left Francis with severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

The emergence of fresh evidence about non-genuine parts being used in the Westralia has convinced him his suspicions about the cause of the disaster were correct.

“I was never convinced that the full truth was out,” he said.

Francis, who served three tours of duty in the Gulf War and was decorated for his service, says he trusted other Navy ships but did not have confidence in the Navy’s largest ship, the Westralia.

“The ship was an absolute nightmare — it was always breaking down.
The ship’s motto was `Faithful and Bold’ but the crew changed it to `Rusty and Old’.”

This week he backed calls by the families of the dead sailors for the coronial inquest to be re-opened and for a royal commission to be held.

Megan Pelly’s father, Lyndon Pelly, Francis and other members of the crew believe information has been withheld to minimise legal liability for the deaths and injuries to the sailors.

Seven sailors from the Westralia were paid $5.16 million in compensation last year but more than 20 other survivors, including Francis, have not received compensation.

A six-year time limit in applying for compensation expired 18 months before the Federal Government made an admission of liability last year.

For Pelly, the new information is another hard-won battle for the truth.

“Things had been twisted to show Megan in a poor light, which to me was their way of saying it wasn’t their fault,” he said this week. “In my opinion it was a deliberate smear on her character
by the higher ranks because the fact was, she should never have been in the engine room as a trainee officer.”

Pelly said the central problem was the Navy’s overwhelming propensity to cover up their mistakes.

“The suggestion originally was that Megan had gone into the engine room after she had been told not to. But it was later revealed that she had been asked to lay out the fire hoses. When the fire
broke out Megan was standing to her post in front of the fire hoses.”

A Naval Board of Inquiry into the disaster did not give him satisfactory answers and he successfully fought for a coronial inquest.

“We finally got someone to admit at the inquest that Megan was ordered into the engine room which was against the regulations,” he said.

While he gained some satisfaction from this admission, vital evidence surfaced after the coronial inquiry.

It is this minute, written by Federal Police officer Detective Peter Smythe and a Defence Department investigator and examined in a Senate Estimates Committee hearing this week, that has sparked calls for the coronial inquiry to be re-opened and for a royal commission.

The report informed the Defence Department of the risk of serious damage to the ship’s engine and equipment three months before the accident.

But the information was withheld from the Naval Board of Inquiry and the coroner’s inquiry.

Pelly said the withholding meant the findings of both forums of investigation were unsatisfactory.

“They knew shoddy workmanship and equipment was being put into HMAS Westralia and three months later they continued to do it and four sailors lost their lives and many other sailors lost their income and their careers,” he said.

Copyright 2007 / Courier Mail