2020 in review: A torrid year like no other

Sam JonesNorth West Telegraph

January

Matilda’s rescue a doggone miracle

In January the amazing story of three-year-old Matilda Moule and her furry saviour Wolfy broke.

Lost on the remote outback station of Noreena Downs, Matilda and Wolfy stayed side-by-side for almost 24-hours in ex-tropical cyclonic conditions.

The pair were eventually found by a helicopter scouring the area and returned to their family without injury.

Matilda and Wolfy who went missing in Noreena
Camera IconMatilda and Wolfy who went missing in Noreena Credit: Kate Paull/facebook

Pride of Warralong vies for top award

A young doctor from the tiny Indigenous community of Warralong was nominated for one of the nation’s most prestigious awards, the Young Australian of the Year.

The motivated Nyangumarta Pitjikarli man was the first from Warralong, population 200, to graduate with a high school certificate and has since completed multiple medical degrees at some of Australia’s top universities.

Mr Thomas also launched the UNESCO-endorsed Life Languages project, which works to translate medical terminology into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages.

Despite not winning the award in the end, it was a proud moment for the small community which raised him, and the wider Pilbara region.

Keeping tiny Tommy and family close

A combination of rare birth defects means for the next two years tiny Tommy Day would be forced to battle on almost 1000km away from his family’s home. But thanks to the local community, his Pilbara station parents were given the chance to be by his side.

Tommy was born five days overdue with tracheoesophageal fistula, a rare birth defect which meant his oesophagus was connected to his trachea, not his stomach.

Tommy’s great-aunt Patsy Beswickset up a GoFundMe page to assist with the cost of the night nurse as well as Mr Day’s fuel costs going between the stations and Perth, with the Pilbara community rallying to surpass the fundraising goal within a matter of days.

Tommy Bull has had a tough time. photo: Tracey Bull
Camera IconTommy Bull has had a tough time. photo: Tracey Bull Credit: Picture: Tracey Bull,

February

Great rate debate

A Town of Port Hedland decision to only charge big businesses 25 per cent of their retrospective rates sparked outcry from a number of local organisations.

After it surfaced two years ago that the mining giants could be charged rates for the use of crown land, many weighed in on whether or not the rates should be back-paid for the previous four years.

But the decision was made by the Town to scratch 75 per cent of the possible charge, meaning just $11.4 million of the total $45.6 million was paid.

The move was opposed by many, who believe the “big boys” in town should have been charged in full.

Cyclone Damien

Hedland was lucky to escape the devastation of tropical cyclone Damien in February.

The weather system, one of the strongest in recent history, ripped through Pilbara towns, causing widespread destruction to homes, building and vegetation.

TC Damien crossed the coast as a category three system and quickly took its toll, uprooting trees, ripping roofs from houses and causing localised flooding.

The cyclone brought torrential downpours to the region, with 236mm of rain falling in Karratha, while wind gusts soared dangerously past 195km/h.

Department of Fire and Emergency Services incident controller Glenn Hall said there were more than 140 requests for assistance in Karratha, as well as 11 in Tom Price.

Cemetery Beach saw minor flooding near the brand new playground
Camera IconCemetery Beach saw minor flooding near the brand new playground Credit: Sam Jones

Retirement village to close after two-year battle

Residents of the Stevens Street Retirement Village were forced to vacate their homes after a final notice of termination and relocation was handed down in February.

The residents, who had fought vehemently against the changes, said they had not been listened to and felt their autonomy was being taken from their hands.

Citing concerns for structural damage, residents’ safety in cyclonic weather, the decision was made last September to relocate all residents to more suitable Port Hedland accommodation.

Many residents were concerned it was a tactic to free up the land for commercial uses, but Town of Port Hedland commissioner Fred Riebeling said there was no such plan.

Residents Joe Wittahl, Damingo Da Silva, Peter Soldo, John Murphy, Bob Kynaston, Chris Whalley and Carol McCorry are concerned about their future prospects.
Camera IconResidents Joe Wittahl, Damingo Da Silva, Peter Soldo, John Murphy, Bob Kynaston, Chris Whalley and Carol McCorry are concerned about their future prospects.

Boom time as ships sail in

A three-year cruise ship drought in the Pilbara finally came to an end in February as a luxury liner carrying more than 3000 passengers and crew docked in Port Hedland.

The 293m high Royal Caribbean International-owned Radiance of the Seas stopped at the Port of Port Hedland with the local community eagerly awaiting the much-welcomed boost to the economy.

Thousands of visitors packed out the town’s cafes, bars and stores, while market stalls also became a centre of attraction, with artisan pieces, educational stalls and musicians offering a Pilbara experience in Hedland’s main streets.

Despite 2951 ships visiting Hedland in 2019, there hasn’t been a single cruise ship in the Port for three years.

March

COAG a coup for Hedland

Civic and business leaders welcomed a Federal Government decision to host a history-making Council of Australian Governments meeting in Port Hedland.

The nation’s top political leaders and bureaucrats were due to converge on the Pilbara town for two days from July 23 in what was described as a much-needed realisation of the importance of the region.

It would have been only the second time in COAG’s 48-year history one of its meetings has been held in regional Australia, and the first time in regional WA.

The meeting brings together the Premiers and Chief Ministers of each State and Territory and the Federal Government to discuss key areas of policy.

Unfortunately, like so many other events in 2020, the scheduled meeting was scrapped due to the global pandemic.

Kids sniffing dangerous chemicals

The East Pilbara mining town of Newman had this year been drowning under a wave of youth crime, with authorities in March highlighting children as young as 10 had been committing crimes after sniffing dangerous chemicals.

There had been many flash points in the ongoing crime wave, with more than 11 vehicles stolen over a three-day period and countless break-ins at both residential and town properties.

WA Police said they had come across young children in the early hours under the influence of chemicals almost every day.

Newman residents have takentook to social media to vent their frustration, some of whom said they would take things into their own hands.

The crime wave looks to not have settled, as Newman continues to battle with serious youth engagement issues.

Flying visit from Raptor

He may be a little ruff around the edges, but, in March, a four-legged friend was brought to the Pilbara to put his paws down and sniff out criminals.

Senior Constable David Biondo was accompanied by his K-9 counterpart Raptor on patrols throughout the town, paying visits to the Port Hedland International Airport and the Seafarers centre in a bid to stem the import of drugs.

Visiting all the way from Perth, the all black Alsatian — who more resembled a wolf — was a welcome addition to the Hedland police, who haven’t had a permanent police dog unit since the death of Maygar, a Pilbara police dog injured in training last year.

Senior Constable David Biondo and police dog Raptor
Camera IconSenior Constable David Biondo and police dog Raptor

Events spiked as virus bites

The biggest events on the Pilbara social calendar were put in limbo in March, as the region began to feel the impact of restrictions imposed because of the global coronavirus pandemic.

The Karijini Experience, North West Fest, Spinifex Spree and Welcome to Hedland were all put on ice.

April

Residents urged to stay home after first virus case

The first case of COVID-19 hit Hedland just hours before WA was cut off from the rest of the nation by the hard border closure.

It was the fifth case in the Pilbara region, which had already seen remote communities cut off from travel and roadblocks put in place to enforce the ban on non-essential travel between regions.

At the time, there had been 5744 confirmed cases Australia-wide, with 453 in Western Australia.

35 Australians had died as a result of the virus.

Heroes save boy from fire

In April, Hedland police made headlines nationwide after video footage of the brave rescue of an eight-year-old boy from a house fire in South Hedland went viral.

Senior Sergeant Tom Gryta and Constable Rhys Morrissey were just three minutes from the property when the triple-zero call came through.

Running towards the glow of the flames tearing through the front of the house, Constable Morrissey smashed the glass of a side window with his baton only to have thick smoke billow out.

They checked the residence and could see the child lying on the floor inside, not moving, and forced their way in to save him.

The boy suffered smoke inhalation and was taken to hospital before being flown to Perth where made a full recovery.

Dawn service in the driveway

Hundreds of Hedland residents stood silently on their driveways with candles and homemade memorials at dawn for an Anzac Day like no other amid COVID-19 restrictions.

They were among thousands around the nation who took part in front yard services, while listening to live streams of ceremonies to pay respect to those who had fought in war for the county.

Frank Edwards, who has led the Hedland dawn services atop his horse for 15 years, got permission from both the police and the Town of Port Hedland for a solo service at the Port memorial.

Mr Edwards’ family has served Australia in every generation and he is a direct descendent of Jim “Ringer” Edwards, a soldier taken prisoner of war in Singapore who was the inspiration for Joe Harman — one of the main protagonists in the novel and feature film A Town Like Alice.

Frank Edwards, who has been at the front of Hedland commemorations for more than 15 years
Camera IconFrank Edwards, who has been at the front of Hedland commemorations for more than 15 years

May

South Hedland rampage

Ten minutes of carnage saw seven people stabbed and their attacker shot dead by police in front of horrified shoppers at South Hedland in May.

Just before 10am on Friday, May 1, Ashley Fildes, a fly-in, fly-out worker from Perth is believed to have taken a knife from the Lodge Motel on Hawke Place before slashing a resident on the arm with the large blade.

Moments later, in the McDonald’s car park over the road, a man sitting in his car was also knifed.

And then, with police already in transit, five more unsuspecting shoppers were knifed at South Hedland Square — including Kim Abbott pushing her infant child in a trolley.

Dozens more people watched in horror as the rampage unfolded. And even after police arrived, it didn’t stop.

Fildes who was known to police, would not surrender or discard the weapon — even after being tasered several times.

So with police screaming at him to “stop drop, stop drop, stop drop” they opened fire three times, hitting the man more than once in the chest.

Luckily, no one, apart from Fildes, was killed in the rampage.

Town’s golden couple mark 57 years and 37 cyclones

Two of the most recognisable faces in the Hedland community last year celebrated their anniversary a little differently due to restrictions on gatherings and the closure of most facilities.

Married 57 years ago, Arnold and Fran Carter usually celebrate their wedding anniversary, which shares the date with Anzac Day, with the community they have spent most of their lives building. This year it was a close family event.

A stubborn local at times, Mr Carter recalled the story of the night he was a few schooners deep and decided to enter local politics.

“A couple of us were down the pub the night of the council election, we’d had a few drinks and decided to go and watch the count,” he said.

“When we got there, there was a councillor at the time who quoted some by-laws, saying we couldn’t go in because we’d been drinking. I had a bit of an argument with him, then spoke to the president at the time who told me the by-laws didn’t even exist.

Obviously it made me pretty annoyed he’d lied to me. I walked up to him and said ‘mate, that’s it, I’m going to study local government, I’ll be back’.”

The rest is history for Mr Carter, who was elected to the council the following year and rose to become Shire president from 1979-1985.

Teen mum’s bin death

The East Pilbara town of Newman was rocked by a gruesome alleged murder in May, when a mother of two was found in a wheelie bin outside the town’s hospital in the early hours of the morning.

The eighteen year old, referred to as Ms Watson for cultural reasons, is believed to have sustained major head injuries, with a 17-year-old boy facing court over her alleged murder.

The teenager charged with her murder had raised the alarm to health workers outside the town’s hospital at 4am but she could not be saved and was pronounced dead shortly after.

The young mother had given birth to a baby boy only a month before and already had a one-year-old son.

It is understood after the argument Ms Watson’s body was placed in the bin and taken to a local Elder's house on Nyabalee Road, about 50 metres past the town’s hospital, before it was then pulled to the health campus.

June

Pubs reopen

It was all smiles for pubs and restaurants in the Pilbara at the beginning of June, with venues able to serve customers a well deserved pint.

As part of phase three of the State’s roadmap to recovery, the maximum size of indoor and outdoor gatherings increased to 100 people, with venues that have multiple zones allowed to welcome up to 300 customers.

Fury as airport cash denied

In June, the Shire of East Pilbara slammed the Federal Government for “ignoring” the region after a shared funding model for the Marble Bar Airport was shut down.

The planned upgrade, which would allow 100-seat passenger jets to take off and land in all weather conditions, had already secured $2 million in funding from Calidus Resources, which planned to use the facility to transport fly-in, fly-out workers to its proposed Warrawoona mine.

Speaking to the North West Telegraph in May, the Shire said it had not been given any reason by the Federal Government why the redevelopment would not be funded under its remote airstrips upgrade program.

According to the Federal Government’s own criteria, the program would provide funding to improve aerodromes in remote areas of Australia, particularly where road access is unavailable or unreliable, and where access for aero-medical flights and urgent supplies was limited, with a maximum grant amount of $3m.

Shire of East Pilbara president Lynne Craigie said the project would still go ahead.

“The Shire is currently working through alternative arrangements to meet the funding gap,” she said.

“Upgrading the airstrip to an all-year, all-weather condition airstrip for charter flights directly into Marble Bar would have directly improved access for medical services like RFDS, improved access to goods and services for residents during times of flood, and provided economic stability to mining operations in the area so they can keep operating all year round by making sure staff can fly directly in.”

Bobbi takes up Vogue Challenge

A well-known Pilbara creative saw her work featured in one of the most recognizable magazines in the world after it went viral in June.

Hedland-born artist Bobbi Lockyer’s work was featured in the July issue of Vogue Australia after she shared photos on Instagram under the trending hashtag, the Vogue Challenge.

The challenge, which involved people creating their own versions of Vogue magazine began as a tribute to the Black Lives Matter movement and to encourage greater diversity in fashion.

Ms Lockyer said that after she posted her work her phone would’t stop buzzing, with support coming from all over the world, including some big name celebrities.

“For me, representation is so important for young Indigenous people — for them to see and relate to a familiar face and someone to look up to,” Ms Lockyer said.

“When I was growing up on all the magazine covers you’d just see the pretty white girls with blonde hair and blue eyes and it was never really anyone I could relate to.”

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