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Loss of the Noongah: Families find closure 50 years on from maritime disaster

Luisa Rubbo, Saturday August 31, 2019 - 17:51 EST
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Marion Wilde places a wreath at the memorial to those who were lost. - ABC

It was one of Australia's worst maritime disasters and now, 50 years on, the families of those who were lost have gathered to remember them and honour their bravery.

The MV Noongah left Newcastle on August 23, 1969, with a cargo of steel bound for Townsville in Queensland.

But she ran into trouble when she was struck by powerful gales and huge waves off the Smoky Cape coast near South West Rocks in New South Wales on August 25.

The Noongah's 26 crew were forced to abandon ship in the dead of night, just 14 minutes after a distress signal was transmitted.

There were only five survivors, who were found after a four-day search and rescue operation.

Of the 21 seamen who lost their lives, only one body was recovered.

Brother's first voyage

Marion Wilde, whose 22-year-old brother was one of those lost, was at the memorial service at the Smoky Cape lighthouse last Sunday.

She said the 50th anniversary of the tragedy was a good time to "hopefully find some closure".

She praised the rescuers who managed to find the five survivors.

"Thank God for that," Ms Wilde said.

Ms Wilde said her mother, who lived until she was 94, never got over the loss of her son.

"Whenever we were near water, Mum would look for him. She always looked for him, she never quite reached closure.

"I decided at some stage that you had to listen to your head and not your heart and let go.

"So I was able to let go of it in a way that Mum couldn't."

Graham Pedimont's older brother, Stephen, was the vessel's radio operator and was on his first voyage.

"He hopped on in Newcastle and it met terrible seas," Mr Pedimont said.

Mr Pedimont said his brother had sent out the abandon-ship distress signal, but soon after "they lost the engines and the rest is history".

Communication difficulty

Geoff Willans, who was in the rescue team, said the conditions were "about as bad as I'd ever seen them".

"The surface wind must have been around 50 knots on the surface of the sea," Mr Willans said.

"The surface of the sea was all white with breaking waves, so your chances of seeing anybody on the water were effectively nil."

Mr Willans said he had been standing behind the flight engineer of the Hercules rescue aircraft when he spotted one life raft, then a second soon after.

The Japanese tanker, Koyo Maru, was the nearest ship and the Hercules crew managed to direct it to the raft, despite some language difficulties.

Mr Willans said the Koyu Maru also struggled in the difficult conditions.

"It was pretty rough. It was about as rough as I've ever seen it."

He said the tanker crew wanted to continue on its way after the first raft pick-up.

"We had to get him [to] follow us again and go over and pick up the second life raft. So that's how two others were saved."

Survivors' guilt

Wendy King, one of the daughters of survivor Russell John Henderson, said they were one of the lucky families.

"We feel a little bit different maybe, we have a bit of survivor guilt," Ms King said.

"I think our father felt that as well — that he survived and so many men he worked with and considered friends lost their lives."

Julie Fava, another of Mr Henderson's daughters, said she remembered her father talking about being in the water and "trying to hang onto the other men".

"They could hear other men in the sea cooeeing," Ms Fava said.

"Every now and then they'd catch a glimpse of the light off their life rafts, but then a big wave would come and that would be it.

"That would have been devastating for all those men in the water — to know there are other men there and that they just would never see them again."


© ABC 2019

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