Not going down without a fight

Anniversary Weekend 2015 is one Stewart and Pauline Rundle won’t forget. 26 January 2015 was the day Stewart fell 30 metres down a cliff.

Father of two children, two grandchildren and two great grandchildren, the former school Principal has lived a full and active life with loads of stories to tell. When you meet Stewart, it’s hard to believe he’s 86 years old. While he’s successfully defied age, unfortunately, that day he wasn’t able to defy gravity. The fact that he was in good shape, and with a sharp mind, would certainly factor into Stewart defying death.

An avid adventurer and explorer, Stewart was well aware of the dangers of owning a clifftop residence. He always kept his distance from the edge and made sure he only stood on ground that he had seen the builders stand on. Unfortunately, Stewart wasn’t expecting it to give way underneath him!

He says his only thought, on the way down, was, “How do I survive this?” Recalling his climbing knowledge, Stewart did his best to position his body, so that when he impacted, his back wouldn’t break from the force. Spread-eagled like a cat and turning onto his stomach, his only thought was to stay alive.  

Unfortunately, Stewart collided with the cliff several times on his way down. “I heard things going with every bounce,” he grimly recalls. Stewart saw an opportunity to grab a passing shrub in a last ditch effort to save himself, only to have it slip through his fingers. He didn’t know it at the time, but he’d broken his gripping arm, and was unable to hold on.

For the last ten metres, Stewart went into free-fall and landed onto the basalt rocks below. Shipped in many years ago to stop the sea eroding the cliffs, they did nothing to cushion Stewart’s fall and he ended up with his head above the waves which were breaking around him, his left shoulder wedged tightly between two rocks. The pain was intense. Every time he tried to move, he would pass out.

Men half his age would have died instantly. Emergency services would later say it was Stewart’s good health and fitness that saved him – that and the cellphone in his back left pocket (which he normally wouldn’t put there) – were crucial to his survival. The trouble was, with his left arm out of action, he had no chance of reaching his phone.

Stewart would lie there for three and a half hours. Any golden hour opportunity had long gone. (Patients typically need medical care within the first hour of an accident or their long-term chances of a full recovery or survival significantly reduce). To keep his mind busy, Stewart whispered affirmations to himself. “I’m going to make it,” he repeatedly said. He recalled the three Bs of first aid – Breathing, Beating (Heart) and Bleeding. He would routinely run his free right hand over his body to check for profusely wet patches of blood. So far, so good.

In the meantime, Pauline was desperate to know where Stewart was and phoned him again and again. He didn’t pick up. It never occurred to her that her extra cautious husband had gone over the cliff. Despite it being wet, Stewart’s cellphone kept ringing. Stewart nervously listened, anxious that the battery life of his cellphone, his only lifeline, would run out. Fortunately for Stewart, the tide was on its way out too, but he realised he was bitterly cold.

It was the first time he thought, “I could die here.” It dawned on him that the only way to get out of this situation, was to get himself out. Stewart decided that the best way to do this, and to take his mind off the pain, was to scream. He gave it all he had. His screams were high but soft. Six of his ribs were broken, it’s all he could muster up. No one could have heard him but it was just the distraction he needed to get himself out. With every agonising breath, he freed his broken body. Before he knew it, he was out.

Now Stewart had to act fast. With his right arm he loosened his belt, dropped his pants, and pulled his left back pocket around to position the phone within reach of his good right arm. Once free, he managed to put a call in to 111, requesting all four emergency services – the fire department to get down to him, the ambulance to deliver first aid, the helicopter to get him out, and the police to coordinate it all. The emergency operator said later it was the first time a Status One patient had helped coordinate their own rescue!

Stewart was starting to lose consciousness again. He remembered seeing a red kayak heading towards him, thinking it was strange it was going towards the rocks. A “big burly man” (a policeman who was first on the scene) got out and held Stewart’s hand. Stewart found this very comforting and calming. “I am going to make it,” Stewart whispered before passing out.

When Stewart came to, in the Emergency Department at Auckland Hospital, his first words were exactly the same, “I’m going to make it,” he said. By his side was Pauline who answered, “Yes, of course you are.”

The Auckland Rescue Helicopter got to Stewart in just four minutes from take-off. Pilot/Training Manager Paul Robinson recalls Stewart’s rescue being very challenging. “The hoist used to winch Stewart up was on the right side of the aircraft meaning that the position I needed to be in caused the wind to be behind me,” he says, “Not ideal, but we had no other option. I was careful not to get too close to the cliff, as this might dislodge debris, sending it tumbling down towards Stewart or, even more catastrophic, towards our spinning rotors.”

Once they were safely hovering, Crewman Ati Wynyard winched Intensive Care Flight Paramedic, Russell “Rusty” Clark, down by cable, to the scene below. Rusty then assessed Stewart and confirmed a winch up was the safest option. After getting Stewart onto a stretcher, with the help of local ambulance and fire crews, Rusty and Stewart were lifted aboard. Also onboard to assist was HEMS (Helicopter Emergency Medical Specialist) doctor, Chris Denny. Being the only civilian helicopter service to carry HEMS doctors on board, Chris could help Rusty deliver life-saving aid straight away. Without a doubt, this expert care helped save Stewart’s life.

Once stabilised Stewart was flown to Auckland Hospital’s critical care unit. He was there for three days. Stewart had suffered five breaks to his back (but, thankfully, not his spine) and three in his neck, as well as a broken right arm, shoulder and ribs. Stewart says that if the Westpac Rescue Helicopter hadn’t been there to winch him to safety, rescue services would have had a lot of trouble, and spent a lot of time, trying to get him out either by hoisting him up the cliff or by sea.

“I wouldn’t have made it,” he says.

We think he is very brave, but Stewart doesn’t agree. “I’m not brave. What I did was self-preservation,” he tells us. “Very brave people are those who do these things on a daily basis; those who take calculated risks for others.” And that’s how he views all those involved in his rescue. He was later told by the crew that it was quite a tricky rescue. “That’s bravery,” he says.

Stewart’s rehabilitation is ongoing since his accident. His left arm may never fully recover. He still has a hard time picking things up, but he hasn’t let the fear of his accident get the better of him. His sunny outlook on life remains. When Stewart finds the recovery process somewhat demanding his favourite affirmation is, “I’m a very lucky man.” By the time he has repeated it several times he is feeling much better.

Stewart remains an avid supporter of our service and is leaving a gift in his Will to the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust. He wants to ensure that the service remains available to those who may need it and we are very grateful for this support.