October 14, 2023
Five months ago John and Paula McLean, and their twin daughters Jasmine and Delilah, were in a devastating quad bike accident near their home in North Auckland. For Paula, who suffered critical head injuries, recovery is ongoing, and the whole family are still grieving their dog, Bruce, who died in the crash.
But the family of four also know they have so much to be thankful for. They talk to Cherie Howie about the rescuers and community who wrapped love and care around them, and the new perspectives that came from the day “the road gave way”.
A quad bike carrying his wife, young daughter and dog is tumbling down a steep, bush-covered slope and all John McLean wants to do is stop it.
He knows it’s hopeless.
“I’m running down behind them, I’m trying to get to them. I want to go on that bike and stop it, but there’s no way I can.”
He’d already pushed his other daughter off the four-wheeler after the stationary motorbike went over the edge as the family waited for permission to walk past repairs on the access road to their remote North Auckland home in May.
Both dad and daughter are injured — 7-year-old Delilah has scrapes, bumps and bruises and McLean, although the pain would take days to travel from body to brain, is missing teeth and has a couple of broken ribs.
The power of gravity has been less forgiving to Paula, McLean’s wife of more than 20 years, Delilah’s twin Jasmine, and the Whangateau family’s loyal sheepdog, Bruce.
All three are at the mercy of hundreds of kilograms of a farm bike rolling out of control down a slope that’s up to 100m long and falling at an 80-degree angle.
When thick bush eventually brings the motorbike to a stop, its half-rolled mass wedged hard against a tree, Bruce is dead, Jasmine has a deep gash to her leg and Paula is unconscious with critical head injuries.
In seconds, says McLean, life has changed.
But while a terrible thing happened, and Paula’s recovery continues, they have much more to be thankful for.
Since the crash, they’ve been embraced by the community, and he has embraced being a more present dad.
Before that morning in May, fatherhood was what he’d learned growing up in 1970s New Zealand — work hard to support your family, even if it means not seeing them very much.
Now, turned main caregiver to the twins while Paula recovers, the 18-hour days on the farm are over, McLean says.
The 51-year-old wants other dads to hear his message: Yes, you have to earn a living — but nothing is more important than your kids.
“I used to only see my kids when they were asleep. Now I get to wake them up, pack their lunch, pick them up from school and take them to soccer and wow, when you see that first smile in the morning, or that last smiley yawn at night, that’s what it’s about.
“This is my opportunity to get that message out there. People don’t realise how much it hurts your heart when you see your family disappear over a cliff. My heart, it hurts — I could have lost all three of them. Yeah, I think about that quite a lot.”
The halftime oranges were packed and the girls tucked into their sky-blue Saturday-morning football kits as the family strapped on helmets and climbed onto their quad bike just before 9am on May 27.
It was Jasmine’s turn to sit up front with mum, who was driving, with 10-year-old sheepdog Bruce behind and Dad and Delilah on the left and right rear.
Their journey was a familiar one, Paula McLean says.
A massive slip had been blocking the top part of Ashton Rd since Cyclone Gabrielle hammered much of the North Island almost four months earlier, cutting full access to their home overlooking Omaha Bay north of Warkworth.
They’d take the quad bike as far as the slip, park, and then wait for the digger operator repairing the road to signal it was safe to walk to their vehicle parked on the other side.
That Saturday was no different, she says.
“I remember how lovely a day it was, because I was excited to be going. I parked in the usual place, and there was no silliness. We were waiting for the digger driver to give us the all clear.”
He already had one leg off the motorbike when disaster struck without warning, McLean says.
“The road gave way — that’s all it took, one second. Everything was gone in one second.”
He was able to push himself and Delilah clear within a few metres, but could only watch as Paula — who doesn’t remember the accident — tried to protect their other daughter.
“She just goes into full, ‘Mummy bear, cover baby’. So Paula’s just wrapped up around Jasmine.”
He believes best mate Bruce, who he’d raised since a pup, gave his life to save the pair, McLean says.
“If it wasn’t for him, I would’ve lost Paula and Jasmine. Because as the bike went upside down and inverted, he dug his feet into Paula’s back and then reached over Paula and Jasmine and dug his feet into Paula’s stomach.
“So as the bike went right upside down, he took the full impact of the bike landing. If he didn’t, Paula and Jasmine would’ve broken their necks.
“That’s what you call the ultimate in loyalty.”
By the time the quad bike stopped, mum and daughter had tumbled about 25m down the slope.
Both were thrown clear, but only Jasmine was conscious — and vocal, McLean says.
“I said to her, ‘Jasmine, you keep yelling at me, you keep screaming at me because I know you’re all right. I know you’re not going into shock. So you just keep doing that’.”
He’d already checked Delilah, who had scrapes to her face, and now he discovered that along with the 70 bumps, bruises and scrapes she’d share with her sister, Jasmine had a deep cut to her leg.
Five metres away, Paula lay motionless.
She was unconscious, had lost teeth and blood was streaming from where the motorbike’s brake handle had gone through her face.
As he held her, they began sliding.
“Paula’s a dead weight … you can’t let someone be a dead weight and go straight down the hill. So I roll Paula onto me, lock her neck up, lift my feet and we go straight down the hill sliding.”
When eventually able to stop, he rolled her back into the recovery position, discovering the left side of her head now had a grapefruit-size bump, and her nose was bleeding.
All he could do was keep her airway clear and neck stable in case of spinal injuries, McLean says.
“It was a horrible moment. But if you freak out, you’ve lost the situation. I had to control the situation.”
Above, help had already arrived.
The digger driver had called emergency services, and scooped up the twins, taking them to the road where St John Ambulance would arrive within 8 to 10 minutes, McLean says.
“And then the fire brigades, we had just about every fire brigade. People just doing an amazing job at a really bad time.
“As soon as it went over comms [emergency communications] that it was a motorbike accident involving a family, we had everything coming.”
In the bush 60-80m below, Paula was still unconscious, but making involuntary, spasmodic movements as first responders arrived to help.
“We were trying to get IVs in, and oxygen, but she was highly unresponsive.”
When he heard the whirr of helicopter rotors above, there was just one thought, McLean says.
It was immediately clear she had life-threatening injuries and flying her to the nearest trauma hospital was her best chance of survival, Clarke says.
Making that happen required one of the most technically challenging winch rescues of his 30-year career.
“We don’t carry out many winch stretcher rescues, and not very often from this height … it was 200ft (61m) and nearly the maximum length of our winch cable.”
With help from ambulance and fire crews, Paula was put onto the winch stretcher — “no mean feat covered in mud on a very steep bank”, he says, and then slowly moved a couple of metres to a clearer spot for winching.
At one point Clarke did a “beautiful face plant”, McLean says.
“When you’re carrying the stretcher, your main concern is the safety of the person on the stretcher, and he went straight down — but he still held the stretcher.”
By the time Paula and Clarke were winched aboard, a blustery easterly was blowing at 46km’/ and it was 10.14am — an hour and 19 minutes since the alarm was raised and 47 minutes since pilot James Tayler had arrived and made the decision to do a high winch retrieval after striking “turbulent” conditions at lower altitudes.
After a stop at Dairy Flat for medical procedures deemed impossible at the crash scene, Paula was flown to Auckland City Hospital where she was met by a full trauma team just after 10.40am, Clarke says.
Back at the crash scene, McLean was in awe of the work of their “flying saviours”, and of what lay ahead.
“I’m standing at the bottom of the hill going, ‘Oh, what do I do now?’”
The community answered.
It started at Auckland City Hospital’s neurology ward and Starship Children’s Hospital, where Paula and the twins each received incredible care, McLean says.
“At Starship we had this doctor who just didn’t leave us for probably 12 to 14 hours, because they were concerned about [the risk of] broken bones in the back.”
With both girls discharged the next day, McLean found himself stretched between supporting his still-hospitalised wife and caring for their daughters, who have since turned 8.
He’d quickly discover he wasn’t alone.
A meal train with more than 70 volunteers provided the family dinner for eight weeks, the twins’ former teacher left her sabbatical to teach them from home, a Givealittle page was set up to offer financial support, and friends took them in while access home remained blocked.
“But it’s not just that. Straight after the accident I had over 1000 texts and you start thinking, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of people that want to care’.”
A hug was enough to get him through some days, McLean says.
“For the first two weeks after the accident, sometimes I’d go to the gas station and forget where I was. I was just aimlessly walking around and someone would go, ‘John, are you all right?’ And they’d give you a hug and you’d go, ‘Oh, I’m back’.
“I’ve always been a proud person. I’ve been arrogant. But I am humbled. I feel like I’m an inch tall, because this community has been here.”
And then there’s Trev.
A farmer gifted the 5-year-old heading dog after King Country Dog Trial Association told members about Bruce’s death.
“It’s amazing. Some guy’s trained this dog for five years and is willing to give him to another person that’s had a bit of an accident.
“And Trev’s an amazing little fella. He’s my therapy.”
The messages began arriving as Paula McLean lay unconscious in the bush.
“‘Where are you? Are you coming? Why aren’t you here yet?’ Because I was a big part of [Saturday football setup] and because it was such a beautiful day, people couldn’t understand why we weren’t there”, she says.
They’d be unread for weeks.
Along with multiple broken vertebrae and neck trauma, Paula had suffered five brain bleeds, and it’d be nine agonising days before she regained consciousness, McLean says.
“She was literally gone. It wasn’t a drug-induced coma — she just couldn’t wake up … I had to start thinking, ‘Well, am I gonna be a solo dad? Where do I go? What do I do?’”
A few days after regaining consciousness, Paula was transferred to the ABI (Aquired Brain Injury) Rehabilitation Centre in Ranui.
The two weeks after the accident are a blank, she says.
“You get hit so hard in the head that you don’t remember anything. Your brain is just not working.”
What she can remember is one day hearing footsteps, turning and seeing two little faces outside.
It was Jasmine and Delilah, the much-wanted IVF babies they’d welcomed more than a decade after being wed.
“I was shaking … they’re my everything.”
There were hugs, kisses and tears, McLean says.
“Paula just kept repeating, ‘I missed you, I missed you.’”
They were warned she might be at Ranui up to 12 weeks — but goal oriented and not made for suburban living, she was home in two, supported by daily home help.
Not bad given he was told when Paula arrived at the neurology ward she’d be doing “bloody well” to be home within a year, McLean says.
“Her progress has been amazing.”
The No 1 goal is getting back behind the wheel — police confirmed to the Herald they found no one at fault for the accident, and have closed their investigation — but her head injury means an automatic six-month driving suspension, Paula McLean says.
Being unable to ride horses since the crash has added to her loss of independence.
But while progress can feel frustratingly slow, it’s still progress, she says.
“I need my licence back, I need to be able to ride again. I just need to get back to who I was again. But I’ll get there.”
He sees how hard Paula’s working to again be the fulltime stay-at-home mum she was before the accident, McLean says.
Among his new tasks, cooking dinner — not because she can’t, but so she’s not too tired to talk before bed, now hours earlier.
“Miss that window and she’s asleep, and you think, ‘This used to be our time to talk’, but now you’re by yourself.
“You can look at your beautiful children and wife and go, ‘Hey, I’m still pretty f***ing lonely, but they’re here’. We’re alive, and we’ll take a step forward today. And we’ll see where we go.”