‘FIND MY SON’

A NSW fa­ther’s des­per­ate search for his miss­ing son.

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Contents - HE­LEN SIGNY

BY HE­LEN SIGNY

Sam Leth­bridge squinted through the smudged wind­screen of his white SUV as a light driz­zle fell. The 17 year old had spent the night with his mates in Wy­oming on the Cen­tral Coast and was now mak­ing the 40-minute drive to his home in Lake Mac­quarie.

It was 4.30am. Life was good. Sam had passed his driv­ing test in Oc­to­ber and had owned his own car for four months, a small Hyundai ix35. And on Fri­day he’d just signed up to a new elec­tri­cal and air con­di­tion­ing ap­pren­tice­ship. Af­ter cel­e­brat­ing with friends, play­ing on the PlayS­ta­tion and hang­ing out at McDon­ald’s, he was head­ing home along the fa­mil­iar road to­wards bed.

A keen boxer, soc­cer player and gym-goer, Sam was ex­tremely fit. He never drank al­co­hol or took drugs. As he drove along the dark high­way, he took a swig from the large bot­tle of wa­ter he al­ways car­ried to stay hy­drated – good habits that were to save his life.

Sam’s par­ents, Tony and Leigh, were away for a week­end in Can­berra, the first time they’d left their three chil­dren unat­tended. Sam’s older sib­lings Luke, 21, and Me­gan, 19, were at home, and Sam, al­ways re­li­able and re­spon­si­ble, had let them know his plans for the even­ing. He’d also texted his girl­friend dur­ing the even­ing: See you to­mor­row at 12.

He was near­ing home, just ten more min­utes to go. Thick trees lined the road and there were no other cars

in sight. Sam was get­ting re­ally tired now. He slowed down as he en­tered an 80km/h zone, the A43 Doy­al­son to Bel­mont stretch, his bright head­lights cut­ting through the black­ness of the me­an­der­ing road as he strug­gled to keep his eyes open.

Just a few me­tres past the area’s fa­mous Big Prawn tourist at­trac­tion, and still trav­el­ling at the speed limit, sleep over­came him. He veered off the side of the road, sideswip­ing a large con­crete pole that ripped off the driver’s door be­fore plung­ing down the em­bank­ment. The airbags ex­ploded as the car spun around, rolled twice and plum­meted down the steep slope, fi­nally com­ing to a rest, right side up, 20 me­tres be­low the road.

Still­ness quickly de­scended on the inky night. The dense bush had com­pletely swal­lowed the car. There were no skid marks, no sign that the trees had been dis­turbed. Noth­ing to in­di­cate that a car had gone off the road. As the rain pat­tered softly, Sam was up­right in his seat, his legs pinned un­der the dash­board. His el­bow and leg were se­ri­ously in­jured and a heavy knock to the head had left him drift­ing in and out of con­scious­ness. His phone was some­where on the floor of the car. Bleed­ing and in pain and hid­den from the road above him, it felt as if he’d never been there.

EERIE SI­LENCE

Sun­day morn­ing came and went at the Leth­bridge house as the first wor­ries started to nig­gle at Me­gan and Luke. Where was Sam? Their calls and texts were go­ing unan­swered. When Sam’s girl­friend re­ported that he’d stood her up for their mid­day meet­ing, they knew some­thing was wrong.

The tem­per­a­ture out­side was a steamy 35°C. By 6pm, Me­gan de­cided to call their par­ents. Ev­ery­one knew Sam would never go this long with­out con­tact­ing some­one.

Leigh and Tony im­me­di­ately started call­ing Sam’s num­ber. The phone rang out. They kept try­ing un­til af­ter four hours it went dead. Mean­while Sam’s friends were re­trac­ing his steps, driv­ing up and down the high­way, not re­al­is­ing they were just me­tres from where he lay in­jured be­low.

Luke and Me­gan drove up and down the road all even­ing. They were get­ting in­creas­ingly dis­tressed, call­ing Sam again and again and rack­ing their brains for what more they could do.

By 9pm, Leigh and Tony couldn’t bear to be in Can­berra any longer. They packed up the car and started

LY­ING THERE TRAPPED AND UN­ABLE TO MOVE, SAM EN­DURED THE PAIN AND THE JAN­UARY HEAT

the long five-hour drive back to Lake Mac­quarie.

Sam’s our sen­si­ble one, they told them­selves, but as they drove through the dark­ness the fear mounted. Had he picked up a hitch­hiker? Was he the vic­tim of foul play? Leigh, a nurse, knew the sta­tis­tics on P-plate car crashes, but she fought to stay pos­i­tive. Tony’s mind kept wan­der­ing to their neigh­bour who, a few years ear­lier, had shot off the A43 and died in the bush. He hadn’t been found for nearly a week.

It was around 1.30am when they pulled into the drive­way of their home. The rest of the fam­ily were al­ready there – Tony’s mother, who lived next door, his older brother, Michael, and his wife, Eileen. Me­gan had al­ready con­tacted the po­lice and filled out a miss­ing per­sons’ re­port, but she’d been told there was lit­tle they could do.

Tony jumped back in his car and headed to the po­lice sta­tion. This was com­pletely nor­mal be­hav­iour for a 17-year-old kid, they told him. He had prob­a­bly just run away. Come back if he hasn’t shown up by morn­ing.

Frus­tra­tion welled up – he un­der­stood the po­lice had a pro­to­col to fol­low, but by now he was des­per­ate. The night was com­pletely still as he left the po­lice sta­tion. Where was Sam? Why wasn’t any­one do­ing any­thing?

That’s not my son, thought Tony. No one knows their child as well as a par­ent, and Tony knew that Sam needed him. He’d had been out there for long enough, Tony couldn’t just sit and wait. He had to fol­low his gut in­stinct and find his son.

He headed home to think. A for­mer builder who now worked with his brother as a post­man, he started to weigh the sit­u­a­tion log­i­cally. There was only one way to search the dense bush: he needed an eye in the sky.

Sam had now been miss­ing for more than 24 hours. His in­juries were se­vere. His fe­mur was bro­ken and the bone was stick­ing ten cen­time­tres out of his thigh. The only thing prevent­ing him from bleed­ing to death was the pres­sure of the dash­board which was press­ing on his legs. He’d hit his head and had frac­tures and dis­lo­ca­tions all over his body.

Ly­ing there semi-con­scious, trapped and un­able to move, Sam en­dured the pain through­out the heat of the Jan­uary day and all the next night. The main road was just me­tres away at the top of the bank, but he was com­pletely hid­den as his life started to ebb away. Time was run­ning out.

FLIGHT OF FEAR

Just af­ter 9am on Mon­day morn­ing, he­li­copter pi­lot Lee Mitchell was sit­ting with three of his col­leagues in their de­mount­able of­fice at Sky­line Avi­a­tion when Tony burst through the door.

“Here’s $1000. I need a he­li­copter to look for my son,” Tony said to the men, his des­per­a­tion writ­ten all over his tired face.

Lee looked at his an­guished face as Tony briefed him on the sit­u­a­tion. Lee had 17-year-old twins him­self, and he recog­nised the fear that every par­ent feels when they can’t con­tact a teenager.

As a he­li­copter pi­lot of 18 years, Lee had flown plenty of search mis­sions, but none of them had ended well. If, by any mir­a­cle, Sam was still alive, he would have been out there for close to 29 hours through an en­tire hot day and night. He’d be de­hy­drated and in pain. “How soon do you want to go?” he asked.

A strong wind had picked up but the con­di­tions were not be­yond an ex­pe­ri­enced pi­lot like Lee. Tony, prone to mo­tion sick­ness, didn’t want to hold up the search. “I’m not a good flyer, I’ll go and get my brother, he can go with you,” he told them. “He’s just a few min­utes down the road – it won’t take me long to get him. Do you want me to pay you now and fill out the pa­per­work?” he asked.

“No mate, it’s been long enough. Let’s fix it up later,” Lee replied.

AS TONY RACED TO GET MICHAEL,

Lee and his col­leagues pushed out a four-seater Robin­son R44 he­li­copter from its hangar and quickly pre­pared the air­craft. They took off the doors to al­low for a 360-de­gree view, and by the time Michael ar­rived at the air­field ten min­utes later, the air­craft was ready.

The gusty wind buf­feted the light­weight he­li­copter as it took off. At

home in an up­stairs bed­room, Tony and Leigh watched as the he­li­copter swung past.

“Where do you want to start?” Lee asked. Michael weighed the op­tions. They had taken off just a few hun­dred me­tres from Sam’s home, so the best op­tion would be to re­trace his jour­ney in re­verse all the way back to where he’d started, on the Cen­tral Coast. “Let’s go to the Swansea round­about and work our way to­wards the Cen­tral Coast from there,” said Michael over the in­ter­com.

He gazed at the ground. The bush was so dense, the only way he could search for signs of Sam’s car was to look di­rectly down, search­ing for any glimpse of Sam be­tween the trees.

Af ter just eight min­utes, Lee spot­ted some white de­bris. The Aus­tralian bush is full of aban­doned cars, but this was un­usual – it wasn’t burnt out, and its white roof was glint­ing in the sun.

“Is that it?” he asked Michael, ma­noeu­vring the he­li­copter closer and turn­ing it at an an­gle so Michael could get a bet­ter look. He could see a door and a front guard – and there, in a small clear­ing in the trees, was un­mis­take­ably Sam’s car.

They cir­cled for a minute, try­ing to spot signs of life. Michael texted Tony to come right away, giv­ing him the co­or­di­nates of Sam’s lo­ca­tion. It was too windy to land close to Sam, so Lee took the he­li­copter to a dis­used ser­vice sta­tion, landed the he­li­copter and let Michael out. As Michael ran back up the road, Lee f lew the he­li­copter back to Sam’s lo­ca­tion and hov­ered to mark the po­si­tion of the wreck­age, and called emer­gency ser­vices.

DENSE DES­CENT

Michael hadn’t planned on be­ing the first one at the scene. He was sup­posed to be the spot­ter in the he­li­copter, but now here he was, me­tres from Sam’s car, and he was ter­ri­fied of what he might find.

A few years ago, al­most to the day, his own son Tim had passed away from leukaemia. He knew all too well a fa­ther’s tor­ment over a lost child.

It felt like he was wad­ing through trea­cle as he started the des­cent, past the con­crete pole and de­bris along the way. He still couldn’t see the car. He glanced up. The he­li­copter was still there, hov­er­ing al­most di­rectly over­head. He must be close now, but he could hardly move, try­ing to pro­long the mo­ments be­fore he would find Sam’s body.

AS A CHOP­PER PI­LOT OF 18 YEARS, LEE HAD FLOWN MANY SEARCH MIS­SIONS, NONE END­ING WELL

He clam­bered around a bush and there was the car. He could see Sam’s head. And then it moved. Sam was lift­ing his head! He was alive!

“Are you all right, mate?” Michael yelled as he burst into a run to­wards his nephew.

He as­sessed Sam quickly. He was con­fused, but he was breath­ing. At first there was no ob­vi­ous blood or in­juries, ex­cept a cut on his fin­gers and his eyes were glazed as he lapsed in and out of con­scious­ness. Hov­er­ing a few me­tres above, Lee could see Michael jump­ing up and down, giv­ing him twin thumbs up – the joy writ­ten all over his body.

BACK AT THE HOUSE, the tex t buzzed on Tony’s phone. “They’ve found the car!” he yelled. Within sec­onds ev­ery­one in the house – other than Leigh – was run­ning for their ve­hi­cles. Tony leapt into the driver’s seat with Michael’s wife, Eileen, be­side him and they hur­tled to­wards the lo­ca­tion, just a short dis­tance down the road.

Min­utes into their jour­ney the phone rang. It was Michael. Eileen an­swered while Tony stepped on the pedal. “He’s alive! He’s alive!”

And there ahead they could see the he­li­copter hov­er­ing as they screeched to a halt. All Tony could see was the dense bush, with no sign of a car or even any bro­ken branches.

“Where is he?” he shouted to the grow­ing crowd of on­look­ers and helpers. They pointed down the slope and Tony scram­bled through the bush to reach his son. “Dad’s here, mate,” he said. “Dad’s here.”

Sam turned his head and smiled at him. “Dad, I’d love a drink”.

PER­SE­VER­ANCE PAYS

Within half an hour, 40 emer­gency ser­vices ve­hi­cles, in­clud­ing am­bu­lance and po­lice res­cue, had ar­rived on the scene. It took one-and - a- half hours for them to sta­bilise the car from slip­ping fur­ther down the slope, re­move the roof so they could ac­cess Sam and slide him out through the back. He was con­scious but his blood pres­sure had dropped, he was crit­i­cally de­hy­drated and he’d lost a lot of blood. His big brother Luke, who had ar­rived in his own car, sat next to him in the front seat through­out the res­cue, while Tony waited anx­iously on the road.

Sam was very badly in­jured. He had a com­pound frac­ture of the fe­mur – a life-threat­en­ing in­jury – as well as frac­tures in his spine, neck,

TONY SCRAM­BLED THROUGH THE BUSH TO REACH HIS SON. “DAD’S HERE, MATE,” HE SAID

base of the col­lar­bone, an open frac­ture and dis­lo­ca­tion of his right el­bow, and six bleeds on the brain. He was badly de­hy­drated and at risk of cat­a­strophic in­fec­tion or bleed­ing. But he was alive. To­day, Sam has no mem­ory of the crash or the 29 hours he spent trapped in his new car. He doesn’t re­mem­ber his four days in in­ten­sive care or much about the six surg­eries he un­der­went over the fol­low­ing few weeks, un­der the amaz­ing care of the trauma team at John Hunter Hospi­tal.

Sky­line Aviat ion re­turned the $1000 to Tony and Leigh the day af­ter they re­turned to pay them. To have found Sam alive within eight min­utes of be­com­ing air­borne was what mat­tered. And the fam­ily would need the money for med­i­cal ex­penses.

So many things came to­gether to keep Sam alive that day. He didn’t hit the con­crete pole head on. He had been drink­ing a lot of wa­ter be­fore the crash, which helped with the de­hy­dra­tion, and his fit­ness had given him the strength to sur­vive through those long hours in the bush.

And, the car had landed on its wheels, mean­ing its white roof could be spot­ted from the air.

Sam knows how lucky he was and that he may well have not been found in time, had it not been for the per­se­ver­ance of three fathers look­ing for a miss­ing teenage boy.

Sam sat semi­con­scious in his car, un­able to move, for 29 hours be­fore he was spot­ted from the air and res­cued

Sam un­der­went six op­er­a­tions in just a few weeks

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