Wedding helicopter crash: injured photographer takes first steps three months after crash

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Ronnie Ronalde, head of operations at CPG Hotel Group, describes the “horrific” accident with the bride and groom on board. Video / George Heard

Twelve weeks ago, Rachel Jordan lay broken and fighting for her life in a hospital bed after surviving a horror helicopter crash in Mid Canterbury.

She sustained significant injuries to her spine, ribs, breastbone, arms, feet and lungs.

She has undergone several surgeries.

She was told that she might never walk again, that it could be months before the extent of the paralysis was known.

But this week, Northland’s mother took her first steps – and is determined to return home to her family next week on a walker rather than a wheelchair.

Rachel Jordan takes her first steps, three months after a near-fatal helicopter crash.  Photo / Supplied
Rachel Jordan takes her first steps, three months after a near-fatal helicopter crash. Photo / Supplied

She spoke to senior reporter Anna Leask about her recovery and how the national lockdown has affected her and others trapped in New Zealand hospitals.

It was a combination of pilot skill and the absolute miracle they survived.

Jordan was up front alongside driver Lynda Harrap, and newlywed couple Fay El Hanafy and Mahdi Zougub were in the back.

They had just exchanged vows at the picturesque Terrace Downs Resort near Methven, about an hour from Christchurch city.

The passengers were all a little nervous, but also eager to travel to the spectacular setting of the Southern Alps for their wedding photoshoot.

Just minutes after takeoff, the magic of the day turned to terror when the engine snapped into the Robinson R44 helicopter and it plunged to the ground.

All four on board were seriously injured with most of the impact on their thorns and legs.

Incredibly, all of them survived.

Mahdi Zougoub and Fay El Hanafy were injured in the crash just minutes after their wedding at Terrace Downs Resort in Mid Canterbury.  Photo / Supplied
Mahdi Zougoub and Fay El Hanafy were injured in the crash just minutes after their wedding at Terrace Downs Resort in Mid Canterbury. Photo / Supplied

It has been three extremely difficult months for Jordan since the June 12 crash.

She spent weeks in Christchurch Hospital before being transferred to Middlemore Hospital in Auckland.

It was closer to home and easier for her husband Eric and son Evan to visit.

After a stint there she moved to a spinal rehabilitation unit and there she worked hard – inexplicably – to get back on her feet.

“I was due to go home today,” she told the Herald on Sunday morning.

“But I decided to stay another week… I just started walking two days ago, which is epic.

“So I decided to stay to train more and go home on a walker instead of a wheelchair… I walk home.”

It’s likely Jordan will use both when she gets released, and she still has many months of rehabilitation left, but coming home is a big milestone for the US-born photographer.

Since the accident, she has had varying degrees of paralysis in her legs, but said she still had partial sensations.

When she arrived at the rehabilitation center, she realized that the back of her legs and buttocks were still paralyzed and she was not sure if it was permanent.

“I was training standing for three weeks,” she said.

“I was just working on the leg movements, my legs didn’t want to move.

“In the end, one leg moved and the other didn’t want to… but two days ago I just started walking while holding on to the bars.

“I felt good – I was so happy.”

The moment was bittersweet though; Due to the level 4 lockdown, Jordan’s family and friends were not allowed into the facility.

Her friend had planned to film her first steps but it could not happen.

Police at the scene shortly after the accident.  Photo / George Heard
Police at the scene shortly after the accident. Photo / George Heard

Jordan is thrilled anyway and can’t wait for people to see how far they’ve come.

“It has been weeks since I saw my family and friends,” she said.

“It’s not easy when you can’t have visitors… my husband and my son were going downstairs [from their Northland home] every weekend.

“It’s really hard on kids when they can’t see a parent… when my son calls me, he just cries.”

But in a week, Jordan hopes to be back home with her family and her beloved garden.

She’s desperate to check out her garden and if she can’t walk through it with her walker, she’ll come around to check on anything she’s missed.

She also intends to work – she has people keen to book photoshoots and things to edit and complete before the crash.

Mainly, she’ll just be happy with a little normalcy.

“In rehab, the biggest part is the mental side,” she said.

“Being around friends and family helps improve your mood. When you don’t have that connection, it’s not easy.”

She estimates that she still has three months of hard rehab work before she really gets back on her feet, but she’s ready for it.

For Jordan, this job will be easier than when she had no idea what her body would be capable of.

“For a while I didn’t know what was going on, my legs and hips were paralyzed and it prevents your legs from moving forward when you walk,” she explained.

“It was a game of waiting to see if the muscles would stay paralyzed and no one could tell me anything.

“For me, the worst part was that I like having goals but no one could tell me if I was going to walk again… do anything again.

“Literally, no one knew.

The wreckage of the Robinson R44 helicopter at the scene.  Photo / George Heard
The wreckage of the Robinson R44 helicopter at the scene. Photo / George Heard

Jordan said she was “thrilled” with her result and knew how lucky she was and how the accident could have turned out.

She said the newlyweds also returned on foot and were released from the hospital. They too had a lot of drug rehab to go through but were optimistic about their future.

The couple and Jordan were already planning to redo the wedding photoshoot.

They were determined to get to the mountains as soon as they recovered and could travel.

“But all on the ground,” Jordan laughed.

“No helicopters please.”

She had forged a “rather special” bond with El Hanafy and Zougub but had not personally heard from Harrap.

The Herald on Sunday has inquired several times recently about Harrap’s recovery but his spokesperson has not responded.

The accident is still under investigation by the Civil Aviation Authority.

A preliminary finding has been published that the engine stopped mid-flight – but the cause of this is still unknown.

“The pilot did an incredible job getting us to land,” Jordan said.

“She managed to land us instead of losing control, which is a miracle in itself.”

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