IT was an outcome few expected, but pilot Andrew Hefford, paramedic John Lambeth and winch operator Lester Stevens all walked into Southland Hospital unaided after their helicopter crashed in the Southern Ocean.
The trio, who work for Southern Lakes Helicopters, had been helping with a medical evacuation of a person from a ship near Macquarie Island when their helicopter crashed near the Auckland Islands, 465kms south of New Zealand on Monday night.
The alarm was raised after communication with the helicopter was lost about 7.30pm on Monday.
Southern Lakes Helicopters owner and chief pilot Sir Richard Hayes located the men walking on a beach on the north-eastern side of Enderby Island on Tuesday morning.
The company’s operations manager Lloyd Matheson said Mr Stevens had been knocked unconscious on impact. Mr Hefford and Mr Lambeth pulled him out of the wrecked helicopter and got him ashore.
Mr Stevens had no recollection of what had happened.
After an “agonising”, sleepless night of waiting for news of their missing colleagues, Southern Lakes Helicopters staff let out an ecstatic roar when their boss Sir Richard Hayes told them he had found them on a beach, Mr Matheson said.
The lack of communication with the helicopter in the moments before the crash remained a mystery, he said.
The helicopter had left Te Anau and refuelled on Stewart Island before continuing south.
The last transmission received from the machine was about two minutes before it was due to land on Enderby Island.
Media came from as far afield as Christchurch to film, photograph and document the arrival of the three men at the hospital.
HeliOtago chief pilot Graeme Gale, who flew one of three helicopters involved in the rescue mission, speaking to media outside the hospital said rescuers had been “bloody pleased to see [their colleagues]” walking on the beach.
Mr Gale described the crew as very experienced, well equipped and carrying good gear.
He said the men had particularly praised their cold water immersion suits, which had helped them survive the crash into cold oceanic waters followed by a “short swim” to land.
“Unfortunately here they’ve had a bit of an accident that’s caused them to get a lift home.”
Search conditions had been foggy overnight, but cleared to warm sunshine in the morning, which had aided rescuers, he said.
Mr Gale also praised efforts of the Rescue Co-ordination Centre New Zealand and the local fishing fleet, describing the collective rescue as “pretty special”.
Although the trio were in “good shape”, they were brought to Southland Hospital as a precaution.
“They’ve been through a bit of an ordeal, so we just need to give them a bit of space to recuperate now.”
Mr Gale said it was an outcome few had expected upon hearing of the helicopter’s disappearance on Monday night.
Mr Lambeth and Mr Stevens had been released from hospital, but Mr Hefford was still in hospital yesterday.
The man, for whom the rescue was initiated, remained aboard the Antarctic Discovery and arrived at Bluff Harbour yesterday morning.
St John spokeswoman Beverly Tse said he had been taken to Southland Hospital in a serious condition.
Australian Longline Pty Ltd managing director Malcolm McNeill, speaking from Hobart, confirmed it was a person aboard their vessel who needed medical attention.
He said the man was a New Zealand national.
The decision to have him airlifted had been taken following consultation with doctors.
He said it was not clear what the man’s ailment was, but that it was not an accident.