Hurt hunter was just ‘a sneeze from death’
Specialist says Australian’s neck and spinal injuries from 40m fall in Kaweka Ranges are usually fatal or result in total paralysis
An experienced Australian hunter was “one sneeze away from death” after falling 40m into a gully in the Kaweka Ranges, breaking his neck and spending 14 hours in the freezing cold before being rescued.
Joe Prusac, 40, of Melbourne, has credited his Kiwi hunting mates Mark Sorensen and Scott Day for keeping him alive, as he battled severe hypothermia, before being helicoptered to Rotorua Hospital the following morning.
But it was not until he had an MRI scan two weeks later that Prusac learned from a specialist he was a “sneeze away from death” due to his neck and spinal injuries.
The dramatic ordeal began on September 6, when the trio began a fourday hunting trip in the Kaweka Forest Park, near Hawke’s Bay.
After being choppered into Ngaawapurua Hut, they split up for a quick “reconnaissance hunt” with a few hours of daylight remaining.
They planned to be back at the hut by dark, and to update their positions on their handheld radios every hour — a decision that saved Prusac’s life.
Sorensen and Day went in one direction, while Prusac made his way up to a ridge behind the hut. About half an hour before dark Prusac slipped, and plunged off the edge of the ridge, falling 20m.
“It felt like minutes,” Prusac said. “I thought, ‘This is it’.”
Once he hit the ground he rolled another 20m down a steep mossy bank, before coming to a rest, 5m from the raging Ngaruroro River.
“I couldn’t believe the fall didn’t kill me, but then I rolled over backwards and about the third roll I felt the pop.”
The pop was his neck. A specialist would later tell him he should have died, or at least become quadriplegic.
Instead, he only felt a “stiff neck”, and suffered a sprained ankle and a deep cut in his hand.
He called his mates on his GPS radio. Prusac was only about 750m from the hut, but it was extremely rugged terrain and it was dark.
Sorensen and Day grabbed the personal locator beacon, first aid kit, food, water and extra clothes, threw on their jackets and headlamps, and reached him about 7.30pm.
“We’ll never forget the sight,” Sorensen said, recalling their mate laying crumpled on the ground.
Their biggest concern was Prusac’s injured neck and hypothermia.
It hadn’t stopped raining, and there was snow on the ridge with the temperature dropping.
They activated two personal locator beacons, but knew the rescue helicopter would have little chance of reaching them, and they’d be spending the night there.
It was too damp for a fire, so about 10pm Sorensen fetched more dry clothes, sleeping bags, sleeping mats and a fly for shelter.
“When I left, I feared he might be dead by the time I returned,” Sorensen said.
About 2am he made it back. Prusac was alive, but his condition had deteriorated, with regular groans of pain giving way to silence.
“The uncontrollable shivering had stopped and his skin had lost all colour,” Sorensen said. “He was in the next stage of hypothermia.”
Prusac said he’d remained positive up until just before Sorensen returned.
“I was in a bad way. They’d wrapped me in a foil blanket, given me painkillers, and I couldn’t feel the pain anymore — that was the scary part. I lost all feeling.
“I kept drifting off, and was just trying to stay awake.
“I started to think I might not make the night, started to think about my family in Australia, my wife Marie and my parents, and what it would do to all of them if I didn’t make it.”
About 7.30am, with Prusac fading, they were starting to feel desperate, until they heard the sound of a chopper thumping down the valley.
“That sound, of the chopper coming up the valley, I’ll never forget it,” Sorensen said.
Five minutes later Prusac was being winched to safety and heading to Rotorua Hospital.
“It was such a massive relief, I can’t explain the feeling,” Prusac said.
“It was like being tortured for 14 hours, then knowing you were in safe hands.”
Rotorua Hospital scans showed Prusac had two broken vertebrae in his neck.
Sorensen and Day were picked up by their own chopper the following day, and caught up with their mate at Rotorua Hospital.
“They said I’d be fine, and would just have to wear a neck brace for six weeks,” Prusac said.
But two weeks later a neck specialist in Melbourne said he was shocked Prusac was alive, let alone walking.
“He said, ‘When I see these scans the people are either dead or quadriplegic’,” Prusac said.
“That is when it hit me hard. [The specialist] said the fact I was walking around, and had no tingling, was a miracle.
“He said I was ‘one sneeze away from death or being quadriplegic’.”