Fifteenth Anniversary of the Australia Day Police Tragedy

Cessna 310 (civilian), similar to the aircraft operated by WA Police

Australia Day 2001: four police officers onboard a Cessna aircraft (call-sign PolAir 64) are on a return flight to Newman after investigating a serious domestic disturbance in the remote Aboriginal community of Kiwirrkurra, near the border of Northern Territory.

What happened that night became the most tragic loss of lives in a single accident in the history of Western Australian Police.

Newman is a modern mining town in the Pilbara region, with its small population living their peaceful lives surrounded by the harsh red desert. The only way to reach Newman is by the Great Northern Highway or by flying from Perth or Port Hedland to the nearby Newman Airport. On average, about 1000 passengers fly in and out daily from the recently upgraded airport. 

Long-Distance Call Out

On Australia Day in 2001, four Western Australia Police officers were called to respond and investigate a domestic incident in a remote community of Kiwirrkurra, located about 860 kilometres in a straight line east of Newman, Western Australia.

Aerial photo of the Kiwirrkurra community
Aerial photo of the Kiwirrkurra community

Kiwirrkurra is one of the most isolated places in Western Australia – an Aboriginal settlement where the summer temperatures range between 35-45 Celsius and the area is prone to thunderstorms and showers.

Driving was not an option, as this community was not connected to major roads, and the distances involved exceeded 4000 kilometres (both ways) by car.

Air travel on one of the biggest beats in the world was routine for police stationed in the vast Pilbara and nothing suggested this flight would be any different.

It was decided that Senior Constable Donald Everett, a pilot placed at Karratha with over 2000 hours of experience, would fly a Cessna 310R (call sign PolAir 64) to Newman aerodrome to pick up Newman Police officers and fly to the landing strip at Kiwirrkurra. The aircraft was operated by Western Australian Police Air Support Unit and was used for similar transport duties numerous times before.

The pilot took off from Newman at 2.20 p.m. with his three passengers: Senior Constable Philip Ruland, First-Class Constable David Dewar and Constable Gavin Capes. After several hours of flying through scattered clouds, the officers safely landed at Kiwirrkurra.

After arriving at Kiwirrkurra, the four police officers were driven from the airstrip to the settlement. There was palpable tension among the attending officers and some members of the community during the visit, in particular as it related to the officers’ initial intention to arrest the alleged offender.

 

Flight of the WA Police Cessna 310R on Australia Day 2001
Flight of the WA Police Cessna 310R on Australia Day 2001
Once the situation was resolved without making an arrest, and heat of the scorching sun eased at last light, the officers made their way back to Newman at 7.30 p.m. The night was exceptionally dark, making it extremely hard to distinguish the ground from the sky.

Two hours later, as dark thunderstorm clouds began to gather, everyone onboard were readying themselves for the long anticipated landing in Newman and looking forward to a well-deserved rest.

On Approach

At 9.50 p.m. Senior Constable Everett radioed the Newman control to report difficulties as he flew over the circuit area of the airport. 

Witnesses at the aerodrome heard the engines start to ‘cough and splutter’ and colleagues of the officers watched in horror as the plane seemingly spiralled down.

Police and local volunteer emergency services personnel immediately scrambled to locate the aircraft. They were supported by other agencies and community members eager to find the aircraft and the wounded men.

Unimaginable

A search team of about 40 people, including police officers and SES volunteers, located the wreckage of the plane at 4.30 a.m. the next morning.

The aircraft crashed into dense bush about three kilometres south-east of the airport. The impact forces destroyed the aircraft, killing everyone onboard. It would later be revealed that the aircraft has run out of fuel.

View of wreckage from front of aircraft (roof of aircraft cabin cut away by emergency services personnel, prior to arrival of ATSB investigators)
View of wreckage from front of aircraft (roof of aircraft cabin cut away by emergency services
personnel, prior to arrival of ATSB investigators)

As aerial photography revealed that the aircraft struck the ground from a near vertical fall, it was clear the occupants have died instantly.

Remembrance

The emotional impact on victims’ families, friends and colleagues and the community of Newman was and is profound. Full police funerals were held in Perth for each of the officers.  May they rest in peace.

Senior Constable Donald Richard Everett #4600

everett

49 years old at time of death, born 15th September 1951

Police Air Wing, placed at Karratha

Joined Police force in 1972

Family: wife Hope and son Justin

everett_stone
Senior Constable Donald Richard Everett is buried at the Pinnaroo Valley Memorial Park

Senior Constable Philip Gavin Ruland #7877

ruland

32 years old, born 8th of October 1968

Newman Police Station

Joined Police force in 1988

Interred at Bunbury Lawn Cemetery

First-Class Constable David Adrian Dewar #9178

dewar

31 years old; born 17th September 1969

Newman Police Station

Joined Police force in 1994

Constable Gavin Ashley Capes #10305

capes

27 years old; born 30th August 1973

Newman Police Station

Joined Police force in 1997

Family: wife Carla, son Lachlan, daughter Caitlin

Ceremony

Every year, on an October weekend, a remembrance service is held on Saturday morning at the crash site to honour the four police officers. The service, followed by charity sporting events is attended by thousands.

newman-2003
Remembrance service at the monument

The families of the deceased police officers attend the remembrance service which includes prayers and one minute’s silence, the reading of the Police Ode, during which the WA Police Air Wing performs a fly-over which is followed by a wreath laying ceremony.

The poignant ceremony is also attended by much of the Newman township and various schools, emergency service groups and other associations.

The annual ceremony allows the families, colleagues and friends of the crash victims to remember the killed officers and maintain the strong bonds that developed over many years.

“Having so many police officers and the community at the ceremony and surrounding the deceased officers’ families at the end is very emotional. The flyover of police aircraft sends a chill down your spine and something you need to experience.” Senior Constable Dave Groenenberg, Bunbury Police

A few years after his son died, Mr. Trevor Ruland became the executive director for the Australia Day Council, in a search to find something positive going forward.

monument

It is a difficult time for those that gather, while they try to move on with their lives, they strive to keep the memory of those that perished alive. Many have developed Post Traumatic Stress Injury, and only some have received ongoing support for their well-being.

Police Ode

As the sun surely sets:
dawn will see it arise,
for service, above self,
demands its own prize.
You have fought the good fight:
life’s race has been run,
and peace, your reward,
for eternity begun.
And we that are left,
shall never forget,
rest in peace friend and colleague,
for the sun has now set.
We will remember.
We will remember.
Hasten the dawn.

Police Ode – written in 1995 by WA Police Chaplain Barry May.

Bloody Slow Cup

Many activities are being held over the weekend to raise money for WA Police Legacy, including a charity Twenty-20 cricket match, touch football, motocross, netball and rugby.

The activities culminate in the ‘Bloody Slow Cup’: an annual rugby match between Australians and New Zealanders living and working in Newman.


Highlights from the 2013 events.

The teams are made up from WA Police representatives from around the state and players that work or have worked in the area.

CFS0BmIVIAEGFBM

Investigation

Australian Transport Safety Bureau investigation determined that both of the aircraft’s engines failed because the aircraft ran out of fuel, prior to impact with the ground near Newman aerodrome. 

The investigation highlighted several factors that led to the tragic outcome: fatigue, dehydration, short-staffing, and aircraft maintenance, amongst other issues. At the time of the crash, the pilot was on work-related duty for about 14 hours, working in an extremely hot and humid environment.

Coroner Alastair Hope led the inquest on behalf of the families and brought up factors such as budgetary concerns and inadequate pilot training procedures.

Assistant Commissioner John Standing said after the findings: “This finding really portrays just how dangerous and how difficult policing is across the State”. (The West Australian, 18/12/2002).

Police Resources

WA Police has a jurisdiction of an area of 2.5 million square kilometres of land, 12,500 kilometres of coastline and is responsible for all policing and search and rescue in the state with a population of over two million people.

Comparing the area of Australia to other countries
Comparing the area of Australia to other countries

Since the 1980s the WA Police Air Wing have used numerous twin-engine aircraft such as Cessna 310, Barons and Piper Navajos to meet their transportation requirements. 

Currently, the Police Air Wing operates the following aircraft: the older Kawasaki BK-117 helicopter, new and high-tech Eurocopter AS365N3+ helicopter, GippsAero GA8 Airvan, and two Pilatus PC-12 fixed wing aircraft (single turboprop engine) purchased in 2006 to replace two Piper Navajos. The GippsAero GA8 Airvan replaced the ageing Cessna 182 in 2012.

WA Police Pilatus PC-12 (VH-WPY)
WA Police Pilatus PC-12 – a versatile single engine turboprop aircraft

Subsequent state governments failed to address the severe budgetary constraints; failing to procure short take-off and landing twin-engine jets such as Pilatus PC-24, improved airport facilities, training programs, and higher staffing levels for WA Police – all remain a low priority for WA politicians.

Post Scriptum

The next time you see a police officer, please consider offering a prayer on their behalf, and take a moment to pray also for the families of those officers who have made the ultimate sacrifice in their line of duty: looking after us.

3 thoughts on “Fifteenth Anniversary of the Australia Day Police Tragedy”

  1. Just a minor amendment Philip is interred at the Bunbury Lawn Cemetery not Karrakatta. Yes it is 15 years since the accident but it still seems like yesterday but the memory of the boys lives on through the Bloodyslow Cup and as a fund raiser for WA Police Legacy it has no equal, as part of the ‘glue’ that keeps these types of communities together it has no equal, to be part of the family that recognises the dedication and sacrifice of those Officers is very special.

  2. Thank you for the article on my Fathers, and the other amazing officers, anniversary of there passing.

    I’m just a little taken back, as are some others of my family by the fact you had a picture of the actual accident on here. Not that you would be aware but none of us have actually never seen it until now…

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