Exclusive: The harrowing survival story of three men who escaped death in a helicopter crash

Newshub can reveal the true extent of the injuries suffered by the rescue crew who survived a helicopter crash in the southern ocean.

Pilot Andrew Hefford thought he'd walked away unscathed but now knows he's fractured a vertebrae in his back.

Another crew member on board had to swim to shore with a dislocated shoulder - and that was after he'd been knocked unconscious.

Winch operator Lester Stevens and Hefford reunited, comparing injuries which make their tale of survival all the more incredible.

"I've got a broken nose and as you can see a few grazes, swollen bits and pieces and a dislocation in my right shoulder," said Stevens.

"So I thought I was the one that wasn't injured. Ended up with a fractured T-12 vertebrae and a badly bruised bum," said Hefford.

Left to right  Pilot Andrew Hefford, Winchman Lester Stevens, Paramedic John Lambeth and
Rescue co-pilot Sean (Snow) Mullally in background
Left to right Pilot Andrew Hefford, Winchman Lester Stevens, Paramedic John Lambeth and Rescue co-pilot Sean (Snow) Mullally in background Photo credit: Supplied

On Monday night Hefford was piloting a helicopter on a routine rescue mission to the sub-Antarctic Islands. Stevens and paramedic John Lambeth were on board.  

"Next minute we're in the water and upside down and I remember sitting there gulping mouthfuls of water thinking, 'shit I've got to get out of here'," Hefford told Newshub.

The injured men had to find their way to the surface, in the dark.

The first challenge - to get out of the upside down helicopter.

Hefford said his training helped him survive.

"The training kicks in; I release my seatbelt and got out. I was coughing and spluttering, hoping it wasn't a long way that we had sunk."

Meanwhile Stevens in the back seat had been knocked unconscious and says it was pure luck he was forced out the aircraft on impact. 

"It was far more relaxing for me, I came to in the water, and someone was saying something about swimming and I was thinking what? Swimming?"

Before it sank, the trio sat on top of the helicopter for a few minutes wondering, what next?

 "We're still alive, but then you also think, we're in the water, what's going to happen here," said Andrews 

"We're going to probably have to swim, and then the helicopter sank away out from under us," 

They set out for a cliff, their thoughts turning to the next danger.

Andrews was worried about predators in the water.

"I thought about sharks, funny you should say that, a previous rescue mission someone had been chewed on by a shark."

But Stevens couldn't swim - because he'd dislocated his shoulder. 

"These other two guys were on either side of me and I just kicked and made it to the cliff," said Stevens.

But their ordeal wasn't over. An incoming tide forced them to scramble over and swim around the rocks to the beach where they spent the night.  

Stevens say it felt like a week, rather than a night.

The group cut ferns to make a mattress so they could keep themselves occupied.

They huddled together to stay warm.

The lost rescue crew was confident someone would rescue them, but it was an agonising wait. 

Sir Richard Hayes and his crew eventually located their battered and bruised colleagues at 11.42am the next morning.

Taking them to their original destination, a DOC hut on nearby Enderby Island.

Back home, Hefford's wife Tania says the ordeal has been a rollercoaster ride for the family. 

"it was probably one of the most intense things I've ever been through in my life and never hope to do again," she told Newshub.

"It was tough to keep that hope up and when we heard about finding the door. Finding out he was safe and well was the best news in the world. So high and low and high again it was amazing." 

The men want their well-wishers to know they appreciate their messages, but they haven't been able to read them, and probably never will because their phones are at the bottom of the southern ocean. 



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