In a late-night address, Kanimbla Commander George McGuire broke the shocking news to his 300-strong crew. They had lost some friends, he said, but "We owe it to their memory to continue with our job." Since the Dec. 26 disaster, the Australian defense forces have spearheaded their country's massive aid effort in Indonesia. More than 1,000 troops have helped distribute food, provide clean water, treat the injured, clear rubble and build houses. "We all tend to focus on where bombs are going off," said Australian Defence Force chief Gen. Peter Cosgrove after the crash. "But here in the midst of this life-saving operation, these lovely men and women, serving their country, have paid a very big price."
The Australian navy supply ship H.M.A.S. Kanimbla was in Singapore on March 29, preparing to head home after three months helping in the reconstruction of Indonesia's earthquake- and tsunami-ravaged Aceh province. That night, a second earthquake struck Nias, Banyak and Simeulue islands, off the coast of Sumatra. Within hours, the Kanimbla - equipped for the rapid transport of soldiers, medics and heavy machinery - was heading back to the area. Medical teams raced for its Sea King helicopters, which began scouring Nias for badly injured survivors and ferrying them to the ship's hospital for treatment. On the afternoon of Apr. 2, one of those helicopters crashed into a football field near the remote Nias village of Aman Draya, killing six naval and three air-force personnel. Two of the dead were women. Two male survivors were pulled from the burning wreckage and airlifted to the Kanimbla. Witnesses told abc-TV that the helicopter's engine failed 30 m above the ground. "This is really quite heartbreaking," said Prime Minister John Howard of his country's worst military accident since a 1996 helicopter collision in which 18 servicemen died. "Those young Australians were on a mission of mercy and compassion."