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In safe hands
Colleagues treat nurse

By PTE John Wellfare

Lieutenant-Colonel Ross Bradford, of the Peacekeeping Force HQ, comforts
Flight Lieutenant Sharon Cooper before she is evacuated to Australia.

Lieutenant-Colonel Ross Bradford, of the Peacekeeping Force HQ, comforts Flight Lieutenant Sharon Cooper before she is evacuated to Australia.

Photo by PTE John Wellfare

Squadron Leader Dave Leaf

Squadron Leader Dave Leaf

“ALL of us had said at one time or another ... that if any one of us was lying in a ditch in Timor we’d be wanting the rest of them, above anybody else, to come and get us. In fact we’d only said that a couple of days before the accident.”

Squadron Leader Dave Leaf, a doctor, recalled these words after he and Aeromedical Staging Facility colleague Flight Lieutenant Sharon Cooper were in a UN-contracted Bell 212 helicopter that crashed near the remote village of Same in East Timor on June 2.

FLTLT Cooper, a nurse, suffered three fractures to her jaw and a compression fracture in her back. Civilian Greg Jack – a member of the three-person helicopter crew – broke his pelvis in the crash.

SQNLDR Leaf and FLTLT Cooper had been called out to evacuate a pregnant woman experiencing birth complications.

The crash occurred during wet weather. SQNLDR Leaf said there were calls of “mayday” over the radio before “the most violent jolt I’ve ever felt in my life ... it felt like being a tadpole inside a can of water and someone shaking it”.

As he moved to evacuate the crashed aircraft, he trod “on something soft” – FLTLT Cooper’s legs. “I looked down and saw that the top half of her body was covered by the medical bag,” he said.

Amid a strong smell of aviation fuel, he shifted the bag and unbuckled the injured nurse from her seatbelt. “I lifted her up, she was moaning, and I was saying ‘come on, let’s get out, let’s get out’ and I thrust her towards the seats, which had formed a ladder.”

They dropped “eight feet or so into a mud puddle” and SQNLDR Leaf helped FLTLT Cooper away from the helicopter. “We were 20 or 30 metres from a house. I ran [FLTLT Cooper] into the building ... laid her down, put a pillow under her and that’s when I noticed her jaw was smashed.”

He returned to the crash site with one of the pilots. Mr Jack was lying on the ground with the other pilot holding him.

With the help of East Timorese, they assembled a stretcher and moved the crewman to a nearby school building to set up a triage facility, then carried FLTLT Cooper to the same building.

About half-an-hour later two Spanish doctors from Same arrived. “We administered pain relief to the patients and ... about an hour later the second AME crew turned up, which was the best thing I’ve ever seen,” SQNLDR Leaf said. “They had a horrified look on their faces – they knew that one of our team members had been injured and they knew there was another serious injury.

For me ... it meant that the cavalry had arrived.” Despite FLTLT Cooper’s condition, she recalled she had been anxious about the welfare of the second AME team of Squadron Leader Sharon Sykes, Flying Officer Sharon Higgins and Corporal Maria Brown. “Obviously it would be very difficult for a doctor and two nursing staff to be called out to help one of their own,” she said.

The second AME team continued treating the injured and even managed to evacuate the pregnant woman. Unfortunately the baby could not be saved. FLTLT Cooper and Mr Jack were transported to Dili and later flown to Darwin.

“For me, closure was seeing her being loaded on to that jet and seeing it take off,” SQNLDR Leaf said. “It was great to see not only the rest of the team take over but, as it were, the arms of Australia outstretch and come and get her.”

FLTLT Cooper was transferred to Royal Brisbane Hospital, where she spent two weeks. She thanked the many wellwishers, including CDF and CAF, whose support had made “a great difference” to her ongoing recovery. Investigations are continuing into the helicopter crash.


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