FOR Tony Lethbridge, finding his son alive at the end of a massive search was a magic moment.
Sam Lethbridge, 17, was crushed, bleeding and injured after a dramatic car crash left him fighting to stay alive for 29 hours.
In an interview with Channel 9‚Äôs A Current Affair, the family talked about the desperate search and Sam revealed his fight for survival as he lay trapped for an astonishing 29 hours.
Tony described the exchange he had with his barely-conscious son when he was first reunited with him. ‚ÄúI said ‚ÄėYeah, Dad‚Äôs here, mate‚Äô,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúI grabbed him and said, ‚ÄėI found you‚Äô.
‚ÄúThe first thing he said was along the lines of, ‚ÄėI‚Äôd love a drink!‚Äô … and I thought, ‚ÄėWell I can‚Äôt give you a drink mate, because I know you‚Äôre headed for surgery!‚Äô‚ÄĚ
It marked the end of a seemingly hopeless journey to find the teenager, after his father‚Äôs gut instinct ultimately saved his life.
‚ÄėHE WASN‚ÄôT THE TYPE TO JUST DISAPPEAR‚Äô
Mum Lee Lethbridge didn‚Äôt hold back when she was asked by police where she thought her missing son was. She told them her worst fears.
‚ÄúThe police officer actually asked us what do we think, because we said it‚Äôs not Sam. My wife actually said, ‚ÄėI think he‚Äôs in a ditch or something, bleeding out‚Äô,‚ÄĚ husband Tony recalled.
The awful reality was just that. Sam was laying in his wrecked car 20 metres down a bank off the Pacific Highway at Crangan Bay, south of Newcastle.
He was crushed, bleeding, injured and in pain ‚ÄĒ and if help didn‚Äôt come soon, he was dead.
It was early on Sunday, January 14 when the teenager dropped off a mate in Wyoming on the New South Wales Central Coast. He was due to meet his girlfriend at midday and texted her that he would see her then.
Driving with his P plates, Sam was heading to his destination when he crashed off the road and plunged down the bank.
He was pinned under the dashboard unable to move. He could do nothing except wait and hope someone would rescue him.
Those people were his parents. They knew at once something was wrong. Sam wasn‚Äôt the sort of person to just run off, or not make contact.
‚ÄúHe would never go without contacting someone, we knew there was something wrong,‚ÄĚ Mrs Lethbridge said.
Both parents fired off text messages to him and tried to ring. There was no answer.
From their Lake Macquarie home they hatched a plan. Initially they searched for hours along the Pacific Highway that is so well known for fatal crashes.
The police visited and that was when they told him their fears he was bleeding to death in a ditch.
‚ÄúI don‚Äôt know if she‚Äôs psychic, or whatever, but that‚Äôs exactly what was happening,‚ÄĚ Mr Lethbridge told A Current Affair. ‚ÄúI kept thinking ‚ÄĒ he‚Äôs shot off into the bush, they‚Äôre not gonna find him.‚ÄĚ
It was his memories of the crashes that happened in the area that he couldn‚Äôt shake.
‚ÄúAn accident happened there about five years ago … It stuck in my mind … I thought, ‚ÄėI can‚Äôt leave him out there without looking,‚ÄĚ he said in the days after Sam‚Äôs rescue.
‚ÄúHis mates were telling us he was a bit tired when he dropped his mate off on the central coast so [a crash] was the only thing we could think of.‚ÄĚ
Sam‚Äôs mother said she was petrified. ‚ÄúI wanted to be positive with all my heart,‚ÄĚ she said. ‚ÄúBut my brain was telling me this may not have the happy ending. I said to Tony, ‚ÄėHow are they going to find his car if he‚Äôs in the bush?‚Äô‚ÄĚ
HOW A FATHER‚ÄôS GUT INSTINCT SAVED A LIFE
It was a decision and a father‚Äôs gut instinct that saved Sam‚Äôs life.
Michael decided the only way they could find Sam was from the air ‚ÄĒ so he wasted no time in hiring a helicopter company to search the bushland they believed the car might be in. ‚ÄúWe just weren‚Äôt going to give up.‚ÄĚ
Pilot Lee Mitchell and Sam‚Äôs uncle Michael Lethbridge were only in the air for eight minutes when they saw the crashed car.
It was heavily damaged and there was debris strewn around a large area.
Michael Lethbridge didn‚Äôt know whether he would find his nephew alive or dead.
‚ÄúI was very scared,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúI‚Äôd take two steps forward and I felt like taking it was terrible.
‚ÄúI felt I had no choice, and I was getting closer, I just had to go down, and I‚Äôd seen a bit of car, I‚Äôd gone past one big bush and I‚Äôd go a little further.‚ÄĚ
The first indication he was alive was the reaction from his uncle when he reached the car. He looked back at the chopper and jumped with joy.
‚ÄúHe must have heard the blades. I saw Sam‚Äôs head move… and that was a different story. Then that was great.‚ÄĚ
Calls were made to paramedics and to an anxious mum and dad.
‚ÄúHe‚Äôs alive. So that was just a magic moment,‚ÄĚ Tony said.
‚ÄúHe‚Äôd been there all night. No one could see him from the road, no one at all,‚ÄĚ NSW Ambulance superintendent Jeff Atkins told the media.
When rescuers found him they had to peel the roof back and cut the seats out to free him. The car was so seriously damaged after plunging through bushes as it rolled that Mr Lethbridge couldn‚Äôt move inside because he was pinned under the dash.
‚ÄúHe was trapped extensively in the car from the waist down and was fully conscious through the whole ordeal,‚ÄĚ Mr Atkins said.
Once freed, he was carried up the bank on a stretcher to a waiting ambulance.
‚ÄúThere’s just so many things that went right,‚ÄĚ said Michael Lethbridge. ‚ÄúThe car landed on its wheels. If the car had been upside down, my biggest concern would have been spotting it. It would have been much more difficult because obviously the underside‚Äôs not white.‚ÄĚ
Sam was taken to John Hunter Hospital in Newcastle with serious injuries including his thigh
sticking out of his skin by 12cm.
Professor Zsolt Balogh, the Director of Trauma Surgery at the John Hunter Hospital, said Sam was very lucky. ‚ÄúHe had every opportunity to die,‚ÄĚ he told A Current Affair. ‚ÄúI‚Äôll be very happy if in 12 months‚Äô time he‚Äôs fully recovered.‚ÄĚ
It would take six operations and a year-long rehabilitation but he is alive and on the road to a full recovery.