Just after 2am on Saturday the 24th of June 2017 a two vehicle traffic accident occurred on the Bruce Highway at El Arish. A mini bus containing 5 occupants and a truck with one occupant only, collided head on.
All 5 males inside the mini-bus were from Vanuatu. They were here as seasonal workers, performing farm work on local banana farms, whilst living in accommodation at El Arish. Three people from the mini bus died at the scene. The two remaining passengers of the mini bus, incredibly managed to exit the mini bus and waited until emergency services arrived.
The two men were transported from the scene to Innisfail Hospital and were examined by Doctors on arrival. X-Rays and scans were conducted and both men sustained injuries that were not considered, life threatening. The driver of the truck was not physically injured. The two surviving males are Charley SEULE 35 years of age and Etienne MALEN 24 years of age. It was at the hospital where I got to meet these amazing individuals.
At 9.00 am on 24th June 2017 along with my partner Constable MORRIS we were tasked to obtain versions of the incident from both men, from their hospital beds. Still slightly sedated both men told Police their recollection of their night prior to the accident and up until the accident occurred. I remember speaking with both men and feeling really sad for them as they were not from Australia and their immediate families were many miles away.
Both men spoke very quietly and politely. At the time of visiting neither of them knew that side by side they lay, Charley in one bed and Etienne in the other. It was only until Police had told them, that they were in the same room, side by side. The look on their faces was one not to forget as their eyes opened wide and they attempted to sit up and look at each other.
Both were lying flat on their backs with neck braces on and were restricted in tilting or moving their heads from side to side. They were believed to have back/spinal injuries. Neither Charley nor Etienne knew of the fate of their 3 countrymen in the mini bus.
Both asked Police to tell them how the others were doing. How was I going to tell them that their friends who had died at the scene were now laying in the same Hospital as them but in the Morgue?
Constable MORRIS and I both hesitated, as we wanted to seek permission to relay on the information that their countrymen/brothers/mates had unfortunately passed away.
We left the ward for a short time. Approval to notify was sought immediately and permission was given. Constable MORRIS and I returned back to the ward and notified Charley and Etienne at the same time that their mates the other 3 occupants in the mini-bus had died as a result of the crash.
Instantly they both cried. Both tried to sit upright in their bed but were advised not to. They weren’t sobbing aloud but you could see that both men were hurting. They couldn’t understand how they had survived. I told them both that I believed God had protected them and that I could not think of any other way they had survived.
By the nods of their heads, I think, they too, believed that God had saved them. They are descendants of Vanuatu. Vanuatu is their homeland. I felt a connection to them both. Firstly, as a parent and secondly because of my Torres Strait Islander heritage.
The younger of the two men reminded me so much of my own boys. Of late my boys have been hospitalised and to see Etienne lying in the Hospital bed reminded me so much of my boys. I stood at the bedside of Etienne most of the time whilst I was at the Hospital. I felt so sorry for him. I wiped his tears away while gently stroking his arm in comfort.
He spoke about his family and how he now wanted to return home. At the time I admit, I felt like crying but for whatever reason I managed not to. I felt so sorry for them as they were laying injured in Hospital, no family close by and they were survivors of a horrific traffic crash that claimed the lives of 3 of their countrymen/brothers/mates. As I left their hospital bed – I said “take care and God bless”.
At about 3pm Constable MORRIS and I returned back to the Hospital. Charley and Etienne at this time appeared more alert. We spoke with them both and they told us that a Doctor had been into see them and they were about to be discharged. Etienne sustained a fractured lower lumber and Charley sustained a broken rib.
Miraculously this was all they suffered with a few cuts and bruises. They were happy to be discharged. I was happy for them also. Still I felt that they were feeling like strangers in a foreign world yet I felt a strong connection to them both. I left my Police card with my details on it for them to call if they needed anything.
A few days later I spoke with my husband about the two men and was still feeling sorry for them. I was emotional whilst telling him their story. How in the world, did they survive? Charley and Etienne had touched my heart. As a Police Officer we deal with many people from all walks of life.
What I learnt from this experience is never judge a person from what has happened or where they come from. Never take anything for granted as you just don’t know when something “bad” or “unexpected” can happen. Most people may believe that Police work is all about arresting people or dealing with offenders/suspects.
But this experience for me is about the “victims”. Victims of circumstance where innocent people, who have had their lives turned upside down, in a matter of minutes. Family is important and you just don’t know when a loved one, whether it be related by blood or not will pass away.
Since I left them at the Hospital I had not heard from either of them but I was curious to know if both had recovered, returned back to work or even, if they had returned back to Vanuatu. On the 12th of July 2017, they returned to the front counter of the Police Station, to thank me for my gratitude and sympathy showed towards them.
Today was also the day that their 3 country men were being farewelled in their homeland. I hugged them both. It felt like they were “my boys”. In their quiet voices, they said, “thank you”, for showing kind-heartedness towards us.
I was absolutely grateful for their attendance. Both are eagerly keen on returning home, to be with their loved ones. Neither of them have returned back to work since the accident. On the 7th of August 2017 both Charley and Etienne are returning to their homeland.
A friendship made through difficult times. A friendship to always remember and two names I will never forget.
By Mary Pere, Police Officer.