The FV Dianne went down off the central Queensland coast in October 2017. Survivor Ruben McDornan has shared his story with 60 Minutes.
The FV Dianne went down off the central Queensland coast in October 2017. Survivor Ruben McDornan has shared his story with 60 Minutes.

How man survived stranded at sea

HE REMEMBERS taking the breath he thought would be his last, and wondering how much it would hurt to die.

He remembers the frantic yelling, his own voice a roar, the desperate hammering, the battering waves and an impenetrable darkness that was a physical force.

Three hours in, after the boat sank, he remembers the silence.

Nine months after he emerged from 12 hours of unimaginable horror as the sole survivor of dive boat FV Dianne, which took the lives of six of his best mates when it capsized off the Queensland coast, Ruben McDornan now knows how much it can hurt to live.

Ben Leahy, 45.
Ben Leahy, 45.

The brave diver tells his story of survival - and his determination that his mates have not died in vain - in a gripping, raw interview to air on 60 Minutes on Sunday night.

It's a survival story which journalist Allison Langdon says is "nothing short of miraculous", told by a man still grappling with the horror, and loss of six of his closest mates.

There's the physical pain of 12 hours spent in the water, alone, knowing your mates have gone, swimming, floating, talking in your head - and sometimes out loud - to the wife you promise you're coming home to. And there's the mental pain of knowing you were the only one to survive.

"Every day," he told Langdon, "I'm back in that wheelhouse."

"It haunts him because he asks himself every day why was he the one who got out? Could he have done more to save his mates?" Langdon told news.com.au ahead of the broadcast.

"And it doesn't matter which way he looks at it, there was nothing he could have done."

Ruben McDornan was the sole survivor of the tragedy which struck he and his mates aboard the FV Dianne in rough conditions in October last year.

The FV Dianne sank in waters off the town of 1770 near Gladstone on October 16 with seven people on board.

He survived after 12 hours in the water, picked up by a passing boat. The bodies of two of his mates, 30-year-old Adam Hoffman and 45-year-old Ben Leahy, were located by police divers.

The rest of the crew - Eli Tonks, 39, Adam Bidner, 33, Zach Feeney, 28, and Chris Sammut, 34, have never been found.

Mr McDornan has never spoken in detail about that night, but is finally telling his story as both a tribute to his mates and as part of his campaign to make people like them safer at sea.

On that fateful trip, Mr McDornan and his mates were "sluggers" - specialist sea cucumber fishermen - on a trip from Cairns down to Bundaberg collecting the Asian delicacy.

They'd stayed in port the night before because of rough seas, but this night, had agreed to head out, wanting to "slug" their way home to their families.

Adam Hoffman, 30.
Adam Hoffman, 30.

The nightmare began in rough seas at about 7.30pm, when what he believes was a rogue wave sent the boat reeling.

The men, one in the wheelhouse, the rest in the bunkhouse, felt the boat started to tip.

"It got to a point where it wasn't going to right itself," Langdon says.

And then, upside down now, it began filling with water.

In the pitch-black wheelhouse, there seemed to be no escape.

The FV Dianne’s wreck was raised and returned to the Port of Bundaberg. Picture: Discovery Channel
The FV Dianne’s wreck was raised and returned to the Port of Bundaberg. Picture: Discovery Channel

The door was jammed firmly shut as Ruben fought to open it. Suddenly, something gave way and he was out, fighting through a mess of ropes and equipment, somehow clearing the hull and popping up, lungs screaming, somehow free and breaking the surface.

Awash on the upturned hull, he waited for his mates to pop up too.

Instead, Langdon says, he heard noise inside - in what he thinks was an air pocket in the bunkhouse, he could hear at least two of his mates.

"They were trying to find their way out," Langdon says.

"He could hear hammering, he screamed at them, he was talking to them. At least two were alive for at least three hours.

"And then the boat sank."

Ruben McDornan (second from right) posted a picture of the Dianne crew on Facebook.
Ruben McDornan (second from right) posted a picture of the Dianne crew on Facebook.

His dive watch told him it was 11.20pm. There had been no time for a mayday call. No time to set off an emergency beacon.

Ruben did the only thing he could do. He started swimming towards the lights of the 1770 headland he could see about 10km away.

He tells Langdon he got through by talking - in his head, and out loud - to his wife, Sammy, determined to come home to her.

"He said the worst part was when he realised at dawn he'd overshot the headland."

He kept swimming. Treading water.

By pure luck, a catamaran - the only boat out that day - somehow chanced on him as he floated kilometres off shore.

Shaking, exhausted, he reportedly told his rescuers: "I'm just so glad to see you."

Nine months on, Langdon says it's the darkness he talks about, something "we can't ever imagine".

"On a dark night in the bedroom if you shut your eyes - that's not as dark as what it is in the water in those conditions," she says.

"That sense of when the boat sank and he knew his mates were gone. How lonely would that have felt?

"Ruben's story is powerful and tragic and raw and it's uplifting. And when it ends, I feel angry that more isn't being done to protect these young men that go out to sea."

 

- 60 Minutes airs on Channel 9 on Sunday at 8.40pm. Visit the 60 Minutes Australia Facebook page for more information.



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