PTE John Wellfare
Ross Bradford, of the Peacekeeping Force HQ, comforts Flight
Lieutenant Sharon Cooper before she is evacuated to Australia.
by PTE John Wellfare
Leader Dave Leaf
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
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
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