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Death falls out of sky at beach paradise
Steve Ferrier Death falls out of sky at beach paradise

The contrast at the scene was stark.

Inviting turquoise water rolled in from the left and crept over the perfect yellow sand.

To the right sat something bent and twisted over craggy limestone rocks sprouting out of the dunes - a twin-engine plane that never made it out of Broome on Wednesday night.

In the wreckage was the body of 27-year-old pilot Adam Gaffney. He got engaged three weeks ago but in a matter of seconds his fate was sealed.

The Piper Seneca he was flying on its nightly freight service to Port Hedland crashed a few hundred metres from the Broome Airport runway. It was about 8.15pm.

Mike Gray was one of hundreds of people gathered at the Cable Beach amphitheatre for a night of music.

"I saw the tail light of an aircraft that appeared to bank sharply and then come down," he said. "I thought it was a helicopter doing some crazy manoeuvre. I never thought it could be a plane."

He also recalled hearing a dull thud in the distance, as did other concert-goers. "There were no flames or anything," Mr Gray said.

It could have been a car backfiring, so he and the rest of the audience listened on as didgeridoo player Mark Atkins and musician Steve Pigram played a haunting piece.

Another concert-goer, pilot Rich Bradley, was more certain about what he had heard - an engine splutter and cut out. "Three seconds later, there was a very loud, distinct dull impact - an unmistakable impact," he said.

"I said to my girlfriend - there's been a plane crash."

About 20 minutes later the easy-listening sounds were replaced by wailing sirens and flashing lights.

"We have to interrupt," the concert announcer said. "We have just heard a plane has gone down in the water."

From that moment all eyes looked out to sea - and in the wrong direction.

Boats and a plane were mobilised and the Broome Surf Life Saving Club became the headquarters for the emergency search and rescue operation.

About 9.30 pm, a distressed young woman arrived at the surf club with a friend, begging police for information. It was the pilot's fiancee.

No emergency positioning beacon had been triggered but for more than three hours the ocean was the focus of the search. There were also vehicles patrolling the shore between Cable Beach and Gantheaume Point when just before midnight a member of the public spotted the crumpled plane in the dunes.

Within minutes the authorities swarmed around the wreckage and confirmed that Mr Gaffney was dead.