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Trawler tragedy: Sole survivor’s horrific night at sea

Ruben McDornan survived a night in heavy seas after his fishing trawler capsized off the central Queensland coast.
Ruben McDornan survived a night in heavy seas after his fishing trawler capsized off the central Queensland coast.

THE precise fate of four ­missing fishermen may forever remain a mystery after police divers cleared the wreckage of their sunken slug boat Diannewithout finding any more bodies yesterday.

Police will now turn to coordinating coastline patrols in vehicles, on foot, by vessels and a plane as families try to deal with the heartbreaking news the men remain lost at sea.

Two bodies were recovered from the vessel by police divers on Saturday, with friends confirming one was crewman Adam Hoffman, 30. Police did not name the second man.

Survivor Ruben McDornan.
Survivor Ruben McDornan.

The completion of the police dive operation leaves open the possibility the men drowned while escaping or perished later when they did not chance upon a rescue.

It can now be revealed sole survivor Ruben McDornan was resting in a cabin with crewmates when the boat flipped in stormy seas north of the Town of 1770 shortly ­before 7.30pm last Monday.

Miraculously escaping the upturned vessel by forcing his way through a narrow gap in a door, he was repeatedly washed away from the boat before it finally sank and left him helplessly adrift.

His horrific night at sea was detailed by Mal Priday, the skipper of the catamaran that rescued Mr McDornan.

"He said he doesn't know how he got out through a gap that small, but he got out," Mr Priday told The Courier-Mail.

"Unfortunately, his mates behind him were unable to do the same."

Sole survivor's family grateful for support after boat tragedy

Mr McDornan, 32, was "pretty knocked around" when he got up on top of the hull of the overturned boat.

"He was knocked off a number of times throughout the night as well," Mr Priday said.

"The boat would have been lurching and moving in the waves. It would have been pitch-black out there; it was a very dark night with no moon.

"It was rainy and cloudy. He could hear his mates inside trying to get out."

Skipper Ben Leahy, 45, and crew members Eli Tonks, 39, Adam Bidner, 33, Adam Hoffman, 30, Chris Sammut, 34, and Zach Feeney, 28, also died in the ­accident.

Eli Tonks.
Eli Tonks.

The men were on their way to a group of islands and reefs north of 1770 to harvest sea cucumbers.

Winds were gusting at up to 35 knots as a weather system moved in that would hit central Queensland with unseasonable flooding rains.

"Obviously, in an 18m boat they thought that they would have been fine," Mr Priday said.

"Whether it was a rogue wave or they had a mechanical malfunction, I guess that will come out in due course.

"The skipper was very experienced. He looked at it and obviously assessed the conditions were well within the capabilities of he and the boat."

Adam Hoffman.
Adam Hoffman.

Mr Priday, his wife Linda, Linda's brother Barry Harding and friend Lyn Chalmers were heading to calmer waters in their catamaran On The Level when they came across him floating 5.6km from shore at 7am last Tuesday.

"He only had the pair of shorts he was wearing. Not even a piece of debris to hang on to," he said.

"It's a remarkable tale of survival. The odds are incalculable. We were the only boat out there."

Inspector Darren Sommerville said families - including about 30 relatives who have travelled to Gladstone - had "mixed feelings" when informed the men had not all died together.

"They have no closure I guess. At this stage we have been unable to locate the remaining four bodies," Insp Sommerville said. "The dive team are confident they have cleared the vessel and the immediate surrounds. They have withdrawn from the scene."

Zach Feeney.
Zach Feeney.

A decision will be made in the future about removing ­Dianne from the seabed, as police prepare a report for the coroner. Asked what he thought happened to the missing men, he conceded, "No idea". "We know what happened with the vessel turning over and sinking. As far as we knew, there were six persons still in the vessel."

Due to the depth of the boat - located on its roof 30m under water - the nine police divers could dive for only 13 minutes at a time before they had to surface and rest for an hour.

They had to negotiate a maze of items inside the cabin, but were aided by the area's best water visibility in a week.

"It was always a possibility that the people would not be still inside that vessel," Insp Sommerville said.

Ben Leahy.
Ben Leahy.
Adam Bidner.
Adam Bidner.
Chris Sammut.
Chris Sammut.

Topics:  capsize editors picks missing trawler ruben mcdornan search and rescue slug boat dianne trawler



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