This afternoon, away with a few friends ‘freebording‘ just outside Krugersdorp, I witnessed one of the most bizarre, frightening, freakish things no doubt I’ll ever see in my entire life. I watched a single prop (updated: Piper Cherokee) plane crash head-on into a bakkie (or pick-up for US readers). I watched it happen from about 20 meters away. And I watched, by some crazy miracle, everyone get through the day alive. I will never forget today. I doubt any of us that were there will.
I should be asleep by now, I’ve been exhausted since 5 this afternoon (everything took place around 3PM), but I can’t close my eyes. There’s too much going on in my head. So I thought I’d offload here.
I want to be as non-melodramatic about today’s happenings as possible, but it’s really difficult to tell this story without sounding melodramatic. So I’m going to tell it as honestly as I possibly can. Forgive me if it’s long-winded. This is just something I need to do.
I’ve been wanting to go freebording with my mates Rich Mulholland, Don Packett and Riccardo Webb for some time now. It looked like awesome fun and they haven’t stopped raving about it. This was the first opportunity I got after a few bungled plans, so I was keen as ever to go along and learn how to ‘snowboard’ on tar. For the record, it’s a lot of fun – not for the faint-hearted – and I’d strongly recommend you give it a go if you get the chance.
It was an awesome day out with the Pure Rush team (who were teaching us freebording) and we were just getting the hang of things when out of the blue I heard a weird whirry, roaring sound, looked up to see a plane flying a few meters above me, then a bang as it hit the road in front of me, and that horrible dull thud only collisions make when it hit the Pure Rush bakkie a stones throw from where I was lying. I can’t remember if I was on the ground because of the crash or because I had just fallen off the board. Either way I was on the ground.
In order to explain what happened next I need to try help you understand the location we were at. We were on a narrow, twisty road that wound steadily down a rocky hill, the particular run we were on consisting of three or four straights with big corners in between them. Us learner-borders had just graduated from the first major corner, and were ambling down the second straight, when it happened.
Most of the team was at the bottom of the second straight. Craig Rodney of Emerging Media and I were a bit behind – about midway up the straight – because I kept seeing my ass. While I was getting acquainted with the tar Monica and Anna, both employees of Craig’s who hard been street luging earlier in the morning and were kindly helping fetch us all from the bottom of the hill and bring us back to the top, were at the first corner. Anna told us afterward that they watched they plane dip in the sky, recover, dip again (when it whizzed over my head), bounce off the road and plough into their bonnet. One meter higher, and it would’ve been the windscreen. Monica and Anna had the presence of mind to bail out the car and get to safety, dragging along with them Tony van Aswegen, another chap who joined us for freebording who was thrown out the back of the bakkie at impact. Quite miraculously all three were unscathed, albeit severely shocked.
Rewind a bit. My first thoughts were horrible – I thought only of Mon and Anna in the car and the occupants of the plane. I am a realist, and my head told me what I was going to see once I got to the accident would be ugly. I heard screaming and shouting as the guys rushed up from behind me. I heard someone asking for an ambulance. Then I think I remember seeing Monica and Anna scramble out the car – and a bit of relief set in. But the flames were flaring up around both vehicles, both of which looked to be leaking fuel, and I knew we were running out of time fast. Jono Herbst of Pure Rush and Nic Haralambous (who should both get medals) threw themselves selflessly into the cockpit, which was already on fire, and began dislodging the badly injured pilot and passenger. The passenger’s leg got stuck and Rich Mulholland jumped in to help pull him out.
Once both were out we dragged them, three or four of us at a time, trying to get them as far away from the scene as possible in case either the plane or bakkie exploded. It was really hard – I thought adrenaline was supposed to strengthen you – but we were all exhausted and completely out of breath from smoke inhalation, not to mention concerned about how much damage we were doing to the two men as we carried them. Still, we managed to get them a safe distance clear, and that’s when people from the airport first arrived. They were understandably in a panic too.
Suddenly there was a new wave of panic though – our cars, parked at the top of the hill above the location of the crash were now in danger of catching fire because of the swiftly spreading bushfire resulting from the crash. Nick Jackson (who did a brilliant job looking after the worse of the two injured men) took my keys to fetch my first aid kit and move the car. I was later to find out that everyone found it near impossible to start my car, which was nearly also engulfed in flames. Now that would’ve been interesting. The ambulance and fire engine arrived not long after, allowing us to take a back seat.
The next hour or so was largely filled with all of us taking photos, hugging, comparing war wounds, smoking, drinking Coke, lifting Citi Golfs (a story within a story), smoking some more, and talking to police and Civil Aviation Authority officials.
Today I watched people who I regard (whether they realise it or not) as some of my best friends REALLY put their lives on the line for complete strangers. I watched a bunch of guys and girls pull together as a team to SAVE other lives. Look, I don’t know about everyone else, but I was scared. I’m pleased to report that I did not run away screaming, or faint on the spot. But I was afraid. I watched guys like Jono and Rich and Nic (and some I may not remember because of the madness of the situation) be real heroes today, and I’m proud to say I know them.
All in all, I’m grateful tonight – for many things. For great friends. For miraculous outcomes to freakish accidents. For lessons learned. And that it’s Monday now (my Mac’s clock just ticked over to 12:01) and I didn’t have to watch someone lose their life unnecessarily yesterday.