10 May 2023

Prayers answered: How the Aurukun community rallied to find missing man

| Samuel Davis
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Watson River’s Luke Quartermaine, far right, brought in horses to help police with the search in the remote community.

A DESPERATE 67-hour search to find an elderly Aurukun man has ended with a family member discovering him “stuck in the mud” in a nearby swamp.

Burt Wikmunea, who suffers from multiple health issues, went missing around 4pm on Wednesday after failing to return home where he is cared for by family.

His disappearance prompted around 40 volunteers and SES members to assist police in finding Mr Wikmunea across four days.

Authorities believed it was the biggest search of its kind to have occurred in Aurukun.

Aurukun mayor Keri Tamwoy said the result had answered the community’s prayers.

She praised the community’s spirit and response in searching for the 60-year-old.

Acting Inspector for the Cape Patrol Group, Warren Flegg, said extra resources were deployed from across Far North Queensland to aid the search party.

“On Thursday afternoon we utilised a helicopter from Weipa but failed to uncover anything,” he told Cape York Weekly.

“A (Bombardier 604) Challenger jet was also deployed from Cairns to pick up heat signatures on the ground – without success.”

Locals and SES members formed line searches across bushland.

On the ground, community members scoured through bushland as well as the Aurukun cemetery and boat ramp.

“All I did was ask for help and everyone just jumped in,” Senior Sergeant Amit Singh said.

“The local council knocked their staff off early on Friday to help, even the teachers finished early and jumped in again on their days off.

“There were volunteers from Weipa and Cairns, rangers on ATVs and officers on horses thanks to a local station owner.

“It was a coordinated effort through some very tough and rugged terrain.”

After failing to find Mr Wikmunea on Friday, the search started again early on Saturday morning.

“We were quite concerned for his welfare,” Acting Inspector Flegg said.

“The time frame for survivability was that by the end of Sunday there was a very low likelihood that he would have been found alive.”

Mr Wikmunea was finally found knee-deep in water in a small swamp by a relative who was assisting with the search.

“He was quite ecstatic,” Acting Inspector Flegg said.

“Our survival experts told us he would likely be sitting down or near some kind of shelter.

“The other thing that made it difficult was the missing person was wearing a green t-shirt and black shorts, which meant he blended into his surroundings.

“He was spotted in shoulder-high swamp grass in boggy terrain underfoot, so it was quite a good find.

“He was conscious but unable to move because he was stuck in the mud.”

Mr Wikmunea was described as being “exhausted” and suffering from macerated skin on his feet after being found.

Burt Wikmunea was found safe and is in Cairns recovering after his ordeal.

Mayor Tamwoy said the response showed the town’s community spirit.

“I’m very proud of everyone involved,” she said.

“I’ve known Burt since I was a child. The kinship relationship I have with him is I call him ‘brother’.

“On Friday I instructed all staff to stop work and be at the search and the few days we were unable to find him was an anxious time.

“Right now we’re just happy he’s safe and getting the attention he needs.

“The outcome achieved was what we were all praying for.”

Mr Wikmunea was treated at Aurukun Primary Health Care Centre before being sent to Cairns hospital where he is in a stable condition.

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