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Monday, 23 February 1987
Page: 561


Mrs SULLIVAN(10.15) —I rise to pay tribute tonight to several heroic men whose personal epic of courage and humanity many years ago stunned and inspired the Australian public at the time. Last Thursday, 19 February, was the fiftieth anniversary of the crash of a Stinson plane in the McPherson Ranges on the Queensland-New South Wales border, which took the lives of five of the seven men aboard. If it had not been for Bernard O'Reilly, a young bushman, all would have perished. Last weekend saw the 50th anniversary reunion of those few still living who were involved in this incredible episode, together with many of their relatives and descendants.

The story of the Stinson crash and rescue was detailed by Bernard O'Reilly in the Australian classic, Green Mountains. No novelist, no matter how great his or her skill, could tell a story more moving or inspiring than that detailed in a mere 45 pages of this book.

The Stinson tri-motor, with two pilots and five passengers, had set out from Brisbane's Archerfield Airport en route for Sydney. As the plane headed for Lismore, it was overwhelmed by cyclonic winds and dashed into a mountainside. When search parties failed to find the crash, it was concluded that the foul weather had forced the pilots to take a coastal route and that the plane had crashed into the sea. Bernard O'Reilly believed otherwise. As proprietor of the famous O'Reilly's Guest House, still operating in the Gold Coast hinterland, he heard stories from numerous local people of how they had seen or heard the plane fly overhead and disappear into the clouds over the ranges. More than a week after the plane had been reported missing, O'Reilly set out alone on a rescue mission. With only a few rations and a simple map, Bernard O'Reilly tackled the tangled jungle and mountains enveloped in cloud-an undertaking which, for anyone else, would almost certainly have been fatal. However, sheer determination and knowledge of this bush stood by him.

Bernard O'Reilly was into the second day of his lonely and apparently hopeless search when he heard a faint call from somewhere in the bush ahead. Following the sound and the sighting of a dead tree, he found the crash site and was confronted by two surviving passengers, Joe Binstead and John Proud, who later became Sir John Proud, Chairman of Peko-Wallsend Ltd. Their nine-day survival in storm conditions with no provisions or shelter is unquestionably a tribute to human endurance and faithfulness of spirit.

As the plane had burst into flames after it crashed Proud had smashed a window and, despite a broken leg, had helped Binstead out of the plane. Then Binstead helped a third survivor, Jim Westray. Westray set out down the mountainside to attempt to find help. His heroic effort to reach civilisation ended in tragedy. After a fall down a rock face which broke his ankle, he continued to crawl for miles down the mountain until, overwhelmed by his efforts, exposure and starvation, he died gazing in the direction of civilisation and rescue.

At the crash site, Proud became feverish from his infected wound. Binstead found water 300 yards distant-down a rock face. As hope of Westray returning with rescuers faded, Binstead made the decision to remain with the helpless Proud, to bring him water and berries-and ultimately to risk dying of starvation and exposure beside him-rather than try to escape the jungle and harsh elements while he still had the strength. His twice daily trips to the water source became more and more arduous. His last journey to the water, before O'Reilly found them, had taken five hours. Bernard O'Reilly's main concern, then, was that the two men would die before he could bring them medical help. There was no time to waste. After making them as comfortable as possible, he set off again into the trackless jungle, using the old bushman's trick of following water to find the nearest settlement. Along the way, he found Jim Westray's body.

After three hours and 14 kilometres of river gorge, he emerged from the wild bush and encountered in the dark of night a farmer to whom he relayed his news. Immediately a massive rescue operation was planned and mounted, but Bernard O'Reilly's personal mission was not over. He had already been going non-stop for 48 hours and continued for the next two days and nights. A medical team and strong teams of men were organised and O'Reilly lead them back up the gorge on a journey that took eight hours. As word spread, people rushed from miles around to help. Teams of men prepared to cut a 22-kilometre track up the spine of the range to provide for the stretchers descent.

As the parade of rescuers, carefully carrying the two survivors, made its way down the perilous track through the mountains, Bernard O'Reilly had already become a national hero. He had shown that compassion, determination and the faith of one man could turn tragedy into a triumph of the human spirit.