It had been like any other ordinary night. Josh Seaman had been out for dinner in Sydney
with his Navy buddies when a call came through on his mobile around 11:00 pm.
Immediately he sensed that something was amiss.
Josh had followed his brother Ben into the Royal Australian Navy. He was six months just
qualified as a clearance diver and Ben was a then a Petty Officer avionics technician
working on Sea King helicopters. Josh was happy with his life. He was at peak fitness and
newly qualified as one of the most elite positions in the military. His family was happy and
healthy, and he had just become an uncle to Ben’s son Cooper a few months earlier.
Ben had recently been deployed at short notice to support the humanitarian support
mission in Indonesia following the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that sadly claimed the lives of
in excess of 200,000 people in 14 countries. The phone call Josh received would change
the Seaman family forever.
Josh recalls, “It was unusual to get a call that late at night, and I just had a feeling it wasn’t
good news. It was the logistics officer from AUSCD Team 1. His tone wasn’t the usual
tone you get from the officers at the Team. There was definitely deep concern in his voice.
“He basically said that I was the first call because I was a serving member of the Forces.
He said my family didn’t know yet, but a chopper has gone down from the HMAS
Kanimbla detachment – my brother’s ship.
“There was a numbness I can’t explain. I knew there were only two choppers on there that
the maintenance team were regularly aboard, and the chances are Ben would be on one
The Officer said they understood there had been between 10 and 12 fatalities, but they
didn’t have the list of names and were standing by the phone and in constant
communication with Headquarters.
It was the worst phone call Josh could have got.
When the Australian amphibious transport ship HMAS Kanimbla was rapid deployed in the
immediate aftermath of Indonesia’s Boxing Day Tsunami, it carried two Sea King helicopters
For Ben, this deployment was meaningful and important work, but when the Kanimbla was
returning home to Australia, an earthquake hit Indonesia, its epicentre on the island of
Nias. HMAS Kanimbla was immediately ‘crash sailed’ from Singapore during a port visit
on return home where they were ordered to return. The massive earthquake measured
8.7 on the Richter-Scale and had caused devastation on Nias off the west coast of
Sumatra. 676 people lost their lives and 25,335 were injured as a result of the earthquake
Two hours later – another call
By now, the whole family was in shock, but not knowing whether Ben was one of the
casualties or not. Then they got the news they had been praying for.
“It was about two hours later when my mum rang me and said ‘he's okay, Ben’s okay.’”,
says Josh. “There was an enormous feeling of relief, and at that stage I got quite an
adrenaline rush from the news to be honest.”
Ben finally got to the satellite phone and spoke to the family after waiting almost six hours
for his turn.
Josh’s thoughts turned to the others who had received devastating news. “It’s something
you can never forget, that's for sure but as quick as that feeling of relief had come, it
washed over, and I felt guilty thereafter.
“I then started thinking about the people that are going through what I had just
experienced, but they were getting the phone call with the worst news possible. I knew
there had been multiple fatalities, and that guilty feeling that my brother wasn’t a casualty
but their loved ones were, still lingers. Whenever I think about it or recall the events of that
night, I can still feel that emotion.”
Remembering those who were lost
Approaching Nias in the early hours of April 2, 2005, the Sea Kings were put to work. The
aircraft, piloted by lieutenants Paul Kimlin and Jonathan King, and carrying nine
passengers, were wings up and heading for Nias with service and medical personnel.
Just after 4pm local time, call sign Shark 02 made a final approach to land on a sports
field in the village of Tuindrao on Nias.
But a mechanical fault turned catastrophic when pilots were deprived of any means of
controlling it, the aircraft pitched downwards from about 20 metres and crashed.
The aircraft crew of four died, as did seven passengers. Their names never to be
forgotten. Squadron Leader Paul McCarthy, Lieutenant Matthew Davey, Lieutenant
Jonathan King, Lieutenant Paul Kimlin, Lieutenant Matthew Goodall, Flight Lieutenant
Lynne Rowbottom, Petty Officer Stephen Slattery, Sergeant Wendy Jones, Leading
Seaman Scott Bennett.
Two survivors, Shane Warburton, a crew member of the Kanimbla, and Scott Nichols, an
RAAF medic, escaped but were badly injured.
A Defence Board of Inquiry was established by the end of April 2005 to determine the
cause, and it took until December 2006 to deliver their report.
It concluded that the primary cause of the accident was a failure of the flight control
system. A key component of the flight control system was not properly secured during
maintenance, which resulted in the pilots losing ability to control the aircraft and was the
result of a series of errors and non-compliances with Maintenance Regulations.
More than 160 witnesses were heard as part of the 20-month deliberations which also
reviewed 560 exhibits, conducted hearings over 111 days and produced approximately
10,000 pages of transcript which consisted of 759 Findings and 256 Recommendations for
improving aviation safety.
The personal cost
The process going through the Board of Inquiry was not a happy one. “Everyone handles
grief differently, but the Board of Inquiry knocked everyone around,” says Josh.
“I had many conversations with people, especially with Ben's closer mates that were
involved, and I was just trying to understand what Ben was going through.
“There was a lot of frustration and resentment from them as a collective due to the
pressure and operational requirement to keep the helicopter in the air. They were under a
lot of stress and duress trying to do the best job they could. But ultimately when you’re told
what to do from the top in the military - you do it.
“Throughout the Inquiry, Service personnel and their families went through distressing
times as they were seeking out what had gone wrong and who was responsible.”
Josh is no fan of how we handle these types of inquiries. “The way that we (Australia) go
about those inquiries is from my perspective, a bit heartless and that process itself caused
a lot of stress and heartache for the families.
“I completely understand that process needs to happen but it's not a very humane way
that they go about it, especially the length of time things dragged on without people being
able to get some closure and some resolve and move on.”
Josh knows the toll it took on his brother. “I have an image in my mind of Ben when he
came back. It fractured him. It’s almost a feeling you can see across his face and it also
reflects how I feel about that situation and how it changed him.”
The Inquiry, which considered 44 Terms of Reference, ultimately laid blame and
responsibility on Navy for the dark day in its history.
Now a Chief Petty Officer, Ben remains a proud member of the Royal Australian Navy and
has deployed many times since the horrific event. This has included a seven-month
deployment in the Middle East conducting anti-piracy and counter-terrorism operations on
board HMAS Anzac, flying as avionics technician on the Sikorsky S-70B-2 Seahawk
helicopter. Now he’s turned his attention to training new generations of avionic
Ben has found solace in the tragedy by becoming heavily involved in the education of the
lessons learned. Several days after the accident, he and the maintenance team onboard
the Kanimbla along with the ship’s crew built a memorial at the crash site and held a
service in honour of their lost ship mates. The memorial was made from a Seaking tail
rotor blade. A cast of that blade was later made. Its location now is in the home of Navy’s
Fleet Air Arm where a permanent memorial site was made and serves as a tangible
reminder of Navy’s history of service and sacrifice.
Josh tells this story so that we never forget there is tragedy outside of conflicts. Our
service personnel continue to make the ultimate sacrifice, and their families bear the
We salute and remember them all.
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