By HARRY CLARKE
ALL three of the men involved seem to downplay the impact that fateful day had on them, whether there’s any deeper meaning to what happened.
Even Andrew Wilson, who subsequently became a Christian pastor, said that surviving a lightning strike – hundreds of miles from medical help – probably wasn’t the result of some divine intervention.
There was no greater force at play, no hand of God reaching down into Bradshaw Station to wrench their lifeless bodies back from the cold and still grip of beyond.
“I don’t think there’s any particular reason for it,” Andrew said. “It’s just one of those things that happen.”
But forty two years on, it could be said that the lightning strike which nearly killed Andrew, John Brosnan and Peter Dahl in 1979 now has new meaning.
Their shared experience in outback Northern Territory has brought all of us closer to achieving Dolly’s Dream.
THE enormous parcel of land that was once Bradshaw Station is situated about 240km south west of Katherine in the far corner of the Northern Territory.
It straddles the Victoria River and its long sprawl of tidal tributaries which drain north into the Timor Sea.
Rowly Walker, one of Bradshaw Station’s former managers, wrote in the book More of the Privileged Few, “on arriving at Bradshaw, I understood what isolation really meant”.
It’s not somewhere you’d want to be thrust into a life-and-death emergency, especially in 1979. As Rowly Walker remembered, “our only communication with the outside world was telegrams through outpost radio”.
Andrew, John and Peter were several weeks into a mustering camp on Bradshaw in October 1979 when the lightning struck.
They were in the far reaches of the property, having just shod a herd of fresh horses they would use to push thousands of head of cattle back to the station yards.
“It was overcast and you could hear a bit of thunder in the distance, some light rain, but it certainly wasn’t storming properly at that stage,” Peter said.
They’d finished the job and were about to drive back to the stock camp in a bull catcher – a kind of modified buggy that ringers use to immobilise rogue beasts.
Andrew and Peter have no memory of climbing into the vehicle. But John Brosnan does. He was already seated behind the wheel.
“I remember the bolt of blue,” he said.
“There was just a big blue flash in my eyes and I couldn’t hear for while. I walk around the back of the bull catcher and there’s Andy, dead on the ground, and here’s Peter about 30 feet away. The lightning just threw him.
“I’d never had any first aid training. I’m yelling out for help and trying to bash on Andy’s heart. I’d never done first aid. I’m trying to give him the kiss of life.”
JOHN’S recounting the story over a beer at the Mulgowie Hotel, thousands of miles from Bradshaw Station and about 42 years after the fact.
He’s exhausted. He’s nearly three weeks into a month long, horseback endurance ride along the Bicentennial National Trail.
The trail runs from Cooktown in Queensland’s deep north down to Healesville, just north of Melbourne, stretching a total of 5,300km.
John’s riding a 400km segment of the trail from Blackbutt to his home town of Killarney.
“When I was a kid, RM Williams came through home at Killarney and that’s when they were marking out the trail, him and a couple of other fellas,” John said.
“His horse got bitten by a snake and died about 5km up the road from where we lived. We gave him a lift back to Toowoomba. Dad went back a couple of days later and got the shoes off his horse and took them back down to him.
“The real RM Williams, we had a cup of tea with him.
“Last year I was having family Christmas and the idea of doing a horse ride along the national trail came up. My brother said, ‘why don’t you do it for charity?’
“So I picked out Dolly’s Dream. Child suicide because of bullying is not very nice, is it?
“Dolly was living in the Territory. I suppose I think I’m a Territorian. Lived up there for 30 years.”
DOLLY Everett was the quintessential Northern Territory country girl.
As a child she was the face of Akubra, the iconic Australian hat brand, but, tragically, at the age of 14 she became the face of youth suicide.
Her story of becoming a victim of long term bullying and her subsequent death on a remote Territory cattle station where she lived is well documented.
Through the Dolly’s Dream Foundation her parents, Tick and Kate Everett, endeavour to create positive change from her tragic death.
At Dolly’s Dream, our goal is to change cultures and behaviours to prevent bullying, by increasing understanding of the impact of bullying, anxiety, depression, and youth suicide and by providing support to parents reads the Dolly’s Dream mission statement.
It was the worthy cause chosen by John Brosnan for his charity endurance ride along the national trail.
“There’s too much teen bullying going on,” he said.
“You read in the news about children taking their own lives and just hope that families can be more aware of how their children are coping.
“Parents need to be able to find the tools to help and that’s where Dolly’s Dream comes in”.
TODAY John Brosnan lives in Queensland, a mining worker based at Mount Morgan.
His mounted trek along the national horse trail has taken him and his four mares winding through stunning Spring scenery along the Great Dividing Range.
The national trail follows old coach roads, stock routes, brumby tracks, rivers and fire trails, through both national parks and private properties.
John rides up to about 30km every day, camping out with his horses around local parks and stockyards, and holding little raffles and fundraisers for Dolly’s Dream along the way.
Coming through the Lockyer Valley, he was joined for the remainder of the ride by his FIFO workmate Davina Taefi, who’s been coordinating the fundraising efforts.
He’s also had help from friends of yesteryear with some of the logistical challenges like moving his support vehicle, stocking up his horse feed and running to local shops for personal supplies.
“Everyone that’s helped me out so far has all been connected to me from living and working in the Territory,” John said.
“It shows how strong friendships can be, even if you don’t see each other.”
JOHN’S joined at the Mulgowie Hotel by Peter Dahl and Martin Bell, another ringer who worked with them on Bradshaw Station.
They haven’t been together since those days but John’s charity horse ride has been the catalyst for the three of them to finally catch up, four decades down the track.
Their lives have gone vastly separate ways but it’s the Northern Territory outback that’s kept them connected, and that bolt of blue that hit the bull catcher in October 1979.
Peter Dahl, now a grazier based in North Queensland, travelled down to meet John and help move his support vehicle while he rides through the Lockyer Valley.
Martin Bell is now a property developer based in Brisbane and made the short trip to Mulgowie.
In some ways, Martin is the only reason Peter and John are there as well. He was the first to come to the rescue when electricity seared down from the sky and struck John, Peter and Andrew as they climbed into the vehicle. Martin and another ringer present, Ned McCord, had training in CPR.
“I’d already gone back down to the stock camp and all of a sudden we heard screaming,” Martin said.
“I’d just done a first aid course 12 months earlier.
“John came to fairly quickly but Peter and Andy were gone. We raced down there and I started working on Peter. Peter came back first and then we (Martin and Ned McCord) both started working on Andy.
“We kept losing him.”
THREE times Andrew Wilson’s heart and lungs stopped working that day, according to those who were there.
Peter soon regained consciousness but for a while, he said, “I remember saying that my legs wouldn’t work”.
With darkness bearing down, a wild storm raging overhead and two people in dire need of medical attention, Martin Bell climbed into the bull catcher and floored it back to the Bradshaw homestead to raise the alarm, thrashing through 70 miles of scrub and across the Victoria River.
“If the tide was up I wouldn’t have been able to get across,” Martin said.
“I reckon I’ve only ever prayed to the big fella twice. Once was for my old man ten years later, and the other was that day.”
Back at the homestead, a renowned mustering pilot by the name of Dick Gill revved up his fixed wing plane and took off into the storm, headed for the stock camp.
“The Katherine airport wouldn’t give him clearance to fly, because of the dangerous weather, but he came out anyway” Peter Dahl said.
“It was well and truly dark by that stage and he had to fly through the storm.
“Some of the blokes at the stock camp lit fires at each end of the runway so that Dick could see where he had to land.
“I don’t really remember the flight back to Katherine but it was a pretty rough flight.
“Rowly Walker, the station manager, was in the front passenger seat and Andy and I were in the back. Andy was yodelling in pain the whole flight. He was in a bad way.”
ANDREW Wilson still has the clothing he wore that day, kept in a cupboard at his home in Canberra’s south.
Electricity tore his hat into pieces and left his shirt and pants in tatters. Ragged bits of material with a traumatic past.
The burn marks on Andrew’s skin are today barely visible, but his hearing has never properly returned.
“I have no real memory of what happened, just this blank period for a couple of days,” Andrew says.
“I remember flying out to the stock camp that morning and my next memory is being in bed at the hospital in Katherine.
“When I woke up I was just bewildered. My hearing was gone. I kept on asking the nurses the same questions and eventually they wrote up on a whiteboard that I’d been struck by lighting and that my parents were on their way up from New South Wales.
“I was in an enormous amount of pain. There was a lot of nerve damage. All my muscles had contracted and just stayed in that agitated state.”
Andrew returned to his family home in Wagga Wagga, and after six months of intensive physiotherapy his limbs were working again.
He too lost contact with his ringer mates from the Northern Territory but his love of “the outdoors and adventure” led to him becoming a full time horse breaker.
He was eventually employed by a Christian family based in Canberra, and it was that job which led him to find God.
“It was really the three little girls who lived there on the property I was working at in Canberra,” Andrew says.
“They kept talking about how Jesus was coming back. At that point I had no Christian experience but eventually I started asking the parents where they were getting these ideas.
“It sounded weird and crazy to me but gradually I became interested in what they believed.
“I certainly wasn’t planning to be a Christian but I was always puzzled, even as a younger teenager, about the meaning of life.
“I don’t think that if I hadn’t have been hit by lightning that I wouldn’t have found God.”
“I was probably already on that path anyway.
“Whilst I’m thankful to have survived the lightning strike and I’m thankful to have come to know God, I don’t see them as related. I don’t try to determine these things.”
Andrew had a long telephone catch up with Peter Dahl in the days leading up to his and Martin Bell’s Lockyer Valley reunion with John Brosnan.
Peter was perhaps even less philosophical about whether it was by the grace of God that they survived that lightning strike.
“When those three little girls asked Andrew if he was ready to meet God, I thought he might have told them that he already had but God sent him back!”
JOHN Brosnan’s charity ride along the national horse trail has so far raised more than $40,000 for Dolly’s Dream.
There was a big night at the local pub in Killarney when John and his four mares came in from the final stretch of their 400km journey.
Country music singer Martin Oakes, another mate of John’s from the Northern Territory, performed live and bidders in a Dolly’s Dream charity auction were exceedingly generous.
A bottle of Bundaberg limited edition Cameron Smith label rum, which retails at $60, was auctioned off for $600.
“Before I started on this journey I thought that maybe I could raise up to $10,000,” John said.
“People have been so generous. It’s very humbling and this has been a truly magnificent experience.
“Now I’ve got a bit of the post blues. Part of me wishes I could keep riding.
“It was really good being out there with a clear head, being right there in the moment with your horses and the countryside.
“When I set off on the ride I thought it would be a good time to do a lot of thinking, but in the end I really haven’t been thinking at all.
“I’ve just been in the moment, soaking it all in. We’ll wrap up the fundraiser and see what happens next.”