A RAAF Reserve doctor on the first Hercules evacuation flight to Bali following the bombings has spoken of the “absolute chaos” he encountered 20 years ago.
Squadron Leader Steve Cook recalled the moment he arrived at Denpasar Airport, which he added still feels like yesterday.
“The sight, the smell, the feeling. You don’t forget a day like that,” he said.
Two decades ago today, three bombs were detonated in Bali that killed 202 people, including 88 Australians. It still remains the single largest loss of Australian life due to an act of terror.
“I vividly remember being called at 0700 and being told I was off to Denpasar Airport for a very standard mission, due to a gas cylinder explosion,” SQNLDR Cook said.
“It was the best information we had at the time, but by the time we went from RAAF Base Richmond to RAAF Base Darwin, the situation had evolved to 30 injured people, so we collected additional medical equipment and personnel.”
The aeromedical evacuation team quickly started to organise and triage the patients over the next 48 hours.
SQNLDR Cook remembers seeing a stream of injured people arriving at the airport, most with untreated burns and shrapnel wounds.
He realised he needed to conduct combat surgery on the fire station floor – something usually only done in war zones.
“To ensure the badly wounded people could fly, my team and I performed combat surgery using ketamine sedation for life and limb-saving surgery, which I learnt in East Timor.
“That opportunity in an exercise environment in East Timor ensured I felt confident I had the proper training to mentally and physically handle such a disaster.”
Wing Commander Michelle Maundrell was deployed on the third Hercules flight into Denpasar on 14 October and called on her experience as an emergency-room nurse to assist victims.
She was with the injured as they were repatriated on the C-130s, which allowed doctors and nurses to offer intensive care in the sky.
“While we were on the flight, it was all about managing burns,” WGCDR Maundrell said.
“Our military training does cover off on that, but in that situation, my previous hospital experience helped a lot.”
She said it was the victims’ selflessness that made the greatest impression on her.
“While there were a lot of patients with significant injuries, they were always pointing for me to help other people first, who they thought were worse off,” she said.
“That sort of attitude really stood out, and it was consistent across the board with the patients.”
As part of Operation Bali Assist, five C-130 Hercules and evacuation teams were deployed to the country from 13 to 17 October in the largest aeromedical evacuation since the Vietnam War.
The bombings were carried out by the terrorist organisation Jemaah Islamiyah, and more than 30 people were subsequently arrested for their involvement in the atrocity.
The 20th-anniversary of the Bali bombings will be difficult for many people in the serving and ex-service community. Help is always available through the below specialised counselling services and resources:
Defence All Hours Support Line (1800 628 036)
Defence Family Helpline (1800 624 608)
Open Arms Veterans and Families Counselling (1800 011 046)