HMAS Westralia is a replenishment tanker with the Royal Australian Navy (R.A.N.) In 1998, a fire in the engine room claimed the lives of four Navy personnel. More than four years on, enquiries into the deaths are continuing.
The name originally belonged to one of the three civilian Armed Merchant Cruisers (AMC’s) requisitioned for war purposes during WWII. The three – Kanimbla, Manoora and Westralia - have all been remembered in the naming of currently serving Royal Australian Navy vessels.
The current HMAS Westralia, a petroleum tanker modified for underway replenishment, was built by Cammell Laird Shipbuilders Ltd in Birkenhead, England, in 1974. She was originally named Hudson Cavalier, then was modified for service with the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. Under the name of Appleleaf she saw service in the Falklands war, until 1989 when she became part of the Royal Australian Navy fleet under her current name. Westralia has undergone modifications while in Australian service, including the fitting of a flight deck. She is fitted with three 3 tonne cranes and two 5 tonne derricks.
HMAS Westralia can carry over 25,000 tonnes of fuel including aviation fuel. She performs a vital role in replenishment at sea of warships and helicopters. She is capable of replenishing two vessels simultaneously, during the day or night, and has transfer points for fuel, water and stores.
Westralia leapt into prominence on the 5th May 1998, when a fire in the engine room claimed the lives of four personnel – Midshipman Megan Pelly, 22; Petty Officer Shaun Smith, 29; Leading Seaman Bradley Meek, 23; and Able Seaman Phil Carroll, 23. The fire erupted only 90 minutes after Westralia’s departure from Fleet Base West in Western Australia, filling the engine room with toxic carbon monoxide fumes. Apparently, the four would have died before the decision was made to seal the engine room and flood it with CO2. A military board of inquiry found that the fire was caused as a result of diesel fuel from a burst flexible fuel hose spraying onto a hot engine component and igniting. The R.A.N. laid the blame on Australian Defence Industries (now ADI), with partial blame to the R.A.N. Calls for an independent inquiry were sparked by allegations that the R.A.N. had been negligent, and that the defence inquiry was inadequate. A Western Australian Coroner’s inquest is to investigate the deaths.
11 May, 2003
The Coronial inquest into the deaths on the Westralia is currently underway. It has been stated by several members of Westralia's crew that the RAN attempted to influence their testimony at the Navy's board of inquiry. Crew members were allegedly told not to mention the various safety problems: "They said not to mention the leaks - the oil leaks - the condition of the ship" (Peta Justice, former sailor). Ms Justice and other sailors were ordered to clean the engine room after the incident, before any forensic studies had taken place.
29 September, 2003
Further evidence has come to light in the Coronial inquest into the deaths on the Westralia. At least two sailors have given testimony stating that they were told to lie to the Naval Board of Inquiry:
"We were told if the ADI lawyers ask you if you worked on the fuel line, to say no because we were unqualified. If you are asked if you used shifting spanners to repair the leaks, say no." - Former RAN Technician Melissa Munday.
"I was told to keep my mouth shut about the fact that the fuel lines that burst were the ones that we all had a go at bending backwards and forwards." - Former sailor Peta Justice.
Part of a statutory declaration by a surviving sailor was allegedly kept back from the Naval board of inquiry, and the sailor did not make any reference to it in his statement in front of the inquiry. The sailor, Leading Seaman Smith, stated that he hid in panic when the fire broke out, and that Leading Seaman Bradley Meek, who was to die in the fire, looked for Smith and forced him towards the exit. Meek was not among those granted a bravery award.
Lyndon Pelly, father of Midshipman Megan Pelly who died in the fire, has expressed his disappointment with the way the navy handled the matter - he learned of his daughter's death on the evening news.
The coronial inquest ended in June, but Coroner Alastair Hope is yet to hand down his findings. Updates will be posted here as information becomes available.
Cammel Laird Ltd, UK
40 870 tonnes
Two 50 cal Browning machine guns
Two SEMT- Pielwick diesel engines
60 officers and sailors
And a huge thankyou to Huntsmaniac for all the help!