Missionary Brother's heroism in PNG tidal wave disaster

Missionary Brother's heroism in PNG tidal wave disaster

Eric Carman

Missionary religious Brothers often see themselves as "the workers" serving God by doing the manual tasks so that the priests could devote themselves to the spiritual life of the faithful. Brother James Coucher, who is a member of the Australian Province of the Passionist Congregation and has been appointed to their mission in Papua New Guinea for the past thirty five years, has filled this role to the maximum.

But that was only part of his contribution to the mission in the Vanimo diocese in the West Sepik Province. He has also filled the roles of pioneer, teacher, farmer, and station manager. To this must now be added the role of co-ordinator of the rescue operation during those few days in July 1998 following the worst disaster in the history of Papua New Guinea - the Sissano tsunami.


Just after 6.30pm on Friday 17 July 1998 an earthquake measuring 7 on the Richter scale struck near the north-west coast of Papua New Guinea at Sissano, ninety five kilometres east of the West Sepik capital, Vanimo. The resulting tidal wave - the tsunami - was eventually confirmed to have reached a height of fifteen metres. No word of this immense tragedy reached the outside world until 8.00 the following morning.

Sister Margaret Conway who is based at Malol in the Sissano area tried desperately through that ill- fated night on mission frequencies to get word of the disaster to someone. But no one turns on mission radios at night. In the first minutes of what must have seemed to Sister Margaret to have been the longest night of her life over two thousand people were either killed outright or were suffering fatal injuries. Sister Margaret had to struggle through the night with the dead, the injured, and the shocked survivors as her only companions.

As soon as Brother James switched on his radio at 8.00am and began his scheduled transmissions to outstations in the Vanimo diocese word came to him that there had been a disaster at Sissano. A quick phone call to Aitape, headquarters of a neighbouring diocese, confirmed that the tidal wave had struck some thirteen or fourteen hours before.

He immediately rang up friends and organised helicopters and light aircraft; phoned the Australian High Commission and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in Port Moresby; and all this was in about a half hour of his receiving news of the tragedy. They got a plane to fly over the mission strip at Sissano and the pilot confirmed that the strip would be serviceable after some minor clearing as soon as the helicopter could transport some men to work on the strip. So it was now possible for an expatriate doctor who happened to be in Vanimo to fly off to Sissano and begin preparing the injured for the flight to Vanimo.

Brother James and his helpers in Vanimo had a clearly defined role. They transported the victims from the planes to the hospital and organised supplies where needed: Medical supplies, vast quantities of food, water, and aviation fuel. The helicopters at Sissano ferried the injured to the airstrip for the planes to carry the patients to Vanimo. Whenever the helicopter landed, there was a great rush to get in, the people being full of fear and desperate to get away from the devastation and death all around them.

What a choice for the pilot and his helper. How could they decide who to take and who to leave? Only those with some hope of survival could be taken. Landing the helicopter in the swamp was dangerous. They had to improvise and seize opportunities, grabbing debris, floating doors, whatever, to support the helicopter floats. This way they rescued four hundred and fifty in the first two days.

Brother James was appalled at the suffering of the injured on those flights from Sissano - the agony they must have experienced during the flight, "...with their shattered limbs, their pierced lungs, huge wounds, flesh torn off, massive bruising from being hit by trees and other debris." All caused by a fifteen metre wave snapping off coconut palms and this confusion of water and palm trees crashing into the houses and people - trees, houses, and people all tossed around together inside the wave; no wonder they were so grievously injured.

Outside help

After three days outside help arrived. The Australian Defence Force and a medical team from Monash Medical Centre with all their professionalism and expertise. The Monash team, six in all, included three surgeons, a theatre sister, a physiotherapist, and a plaster technician. This team has been visiting Vanimo for years, operating in the hospital, and operating on children the mission sent to Monash.

The hardest part for the survivors was coping with their grief. Traditionally, Papua New Guinean people need to grieve over their departed loved ones. Brother James says it compassionately, "They need to sit with the body, hold it, tell stories about the dead person, cry and wail over them; and of course, this was not possible."

For the future, the Passionists are determined that some good will arise from the ashes of this disaster. They see the way forward is by establishing a care centre for children with disabilities - a "Senta Bilong Halivim." If you would like to help with this project, please contact Pauline McKenzie, tel +61 (03) 5256 2576, fax +61 (03) 5256 2576, email pauline@mail.austasia.net

Dr Eric Carman is a retired physics professor and writes books about his experiences with the people and missionaries in PNG.

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