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Navy man says he fears for his life after accident

Navy seaman Mr Ellis Mundraby initially thought it was a training exercise...

Navy seaman Mr Ellis Mundraby initially thought it was a training exercise. Bodies were lying limp on the floor, officers were armed with breathing apparatus.

But when he began to have difficulty breathing, he knew - although he did not want to believe - it was not a drill.

The scenes confronting him were "truly horrific". Not only were men dying but they were dying in the most drastic and convulsive manner.

Three officers were killed and 62 others - including Mr Mundraby - were injured in the 1985 accident on HMAS Stalwart, when highly toxic and lethal quantities of hydrogen sulfide were released during a bilge water pumping operation off Darwin.

Mr Mundraby, 41, is suing the Commonwealth Government for physical and psychological damages, claiming he suffers chronic post traumatic stress disorder as a result of the accident, on October 22.

In the Federal Court yesterday, he vividly recalled his attempts to rescue his injured colleagues as he was overcome by the gas.

"I just couldn't breathe. I definitely was concerned for my life. I was really wishing it was an exercise."

He remembered the heaviness of the men's bodies, and helping to hold down a convulsing man.

"I had to pick [one man] up and carry him like a baby.

"He was pale, his eyes were glazed. He had spittle running over his mouth. I kept saying: 'What did you do? Wake up. Everything's all right'."

Since the incident he has suffered fears for his life, flashbacks, aversions to strong odours, depression and anxiety. By the 1990s his condition deteriorated and he was discharged from the Navy, in April this year.

His counsel, Mr Desmond Kennedy, said that following the accident, his client was not offered any psychological treatment by the Navy.

"If there had been an early involvement in a debriefing, the condition that developed in the plaintiff would not have become what it now is," Mr Kennedy said.

Mr Kennedy said the Navy knew about the causes and dangers of hydrogen sulfide, but had failed to ensure that procedures were in place to prevent the escape of such gas.

It had failed also to put into place operational procedures to be followed in the event of an outbreak of the gas, and failed to equip the ship with devices to detect the escape of gas.

In May last year the Navy admitted it failed to exercise reasonable care for the safety of Mr Mundraby. The court must now decide damages.

A second seaman who helped in the rescue on HMAS Stalwart, Mr David Mark Lewis, is also seeking compensation.