‘FIND MY SON’
A NSW father’s desperate search for his missing son.
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.
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.
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”.
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