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WA: Man beats odds, technology in remote mine rescue

By Jo Prichard
12 Feb 2009 4:14 PM

PERTH, Feb 12 AAP - An aircraft's chance detection of a distress signal likely saved the life of a man badly injured at a remote mine site.

The man, aged his early 60s, lay injured for 27 hours after falling off a ladder while tending to a rainwater tank at Bulong, 30km east of Kalgoorlie, on Tuesday.

Suffering a broken hip and bleeding from internal injuries, he activated a distress beacon using an analogue frequency, which was made defunct about two weeks ago with a move to digital.

But luck was on the injured man's side.

An aircraft travelling at 11,000 metres happened to detect the analogue signal, which can still be picked up on an aeronautical distress frequency.

It was first heard early on Wednesday, 16 hours after the man fell, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority said.

Kalgoorlie police said the man, who was caretaking the mine for a friend, would likely have died had the signal gone undetected.

"If it wasn't for the EPIRB (Emergency Positioning-Indicating Radio Beacon), I would say that the poor fellow would have passed away and been found several days after the event," Sergeant James Parker said.

"My understanding is ... he probably wouldn't have survived another 24 hours."

The Rescue Coordination Centre Australia notified other aircraft to listen out for the signal after it was first heard.

But it was five hours before another aircraft flying at 3,000 metres detected it, but then lost it again.

The centre then sent an aircraft from Kalgoorlie to find coordinates for the signal and notified Kalgoorlie police to start a land rescue.

The satellite picking up the signal passed over the area where the caretaker was located at least 20 times, but took time to pinpoint him because of the changeover to digital monitoring.

Three police officers found the man after they set out from Kalgoorlie on Wednesday morning.

"It's quite secluded, there's a dirt road that runs from Bulong out to Curtin railway siding ... and the turnoff for his camp was about 19.5km south of the Bulong Road," Sgt Parker said.

"And then his camp was probably another kilometre in ... a fairly secluded track, so it's probably a stroke of luck too that we actually found the right track to go down and locate him."

Sgt Parker said the man could not activate the beacon straight away because he was bleeding internally from serious injuries.

"He took ... several hours to drag himself about five metres inside his shack and then once inside it's then taken him more hours to access an EPIRB," Sgt Parker said.

"He's ... then realised that it probably wasn't very effective in the shack so he had to go to more effort to get it outside by throwing it out the door.

"Then he used a metal pole to push it far enough out from under the eaves so it wouldn't be under the metal roof."

The man, from Mandurah south of Perth, was flown to Royal Perth Hospital on Wednesday night, where his condition is described as critical but stable.