Truckie recounts ordeal in deep river

SLOWLY HEALING: Stephen Sowman, recovering in Nelson Hospital, shares a laugh with his sister Andrea Wallace. He has months of recovery ahead of him as he heals from his injuries.
SLOWLY HEALING: Stephen Sowman, recovering in Nelson Hospital, shares a laugh with his sister Andrea Wallace. He has months of recovery ahead of him as he heals from his injuries.

Stephen Sowman looked at photos of the day last week when he was hauled badly injured from the crushed cab of a logging truck and recalled: "That's when I screamed like a pig".

Sowman is recovering in Nelson Hospital from multiple serious injuries, including surgery this week to replace his kneecap, after surviving what those first on the scene were sure would be a fatal crash into the Buller River near Murchison on May 22.

Yesterday he struggled to find the words to describe his indebtedness to his many rescuers.

SHARING A LAUGH: Stephen Sowman's daughters took advantage of his incapacity to paint his toe nails pink as a prank.
SHARING A LAUGH: Stephen Sowman's daughters took advantage of his incapacity to paint his toe nails pink as a prank.

The two-hour rescue involved firefighters, police, St John Ambulance staff, river rafting guides, a jet boat operator and the Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter.

"I will be forever grateful. I had all these strangers worried about getting me out safely."

The 53-year-old, experienced logging truck driver was trundling south from Nelson to the Tutaki Valley near Murchison when the unladen Stuart Drummond Transport logging truck ran off State Highway 6 just north of Murchison and plunged 30 metres down a bank into the fast-flowing river.

COLD WORK: Rescuers remove the injured man from the damaged cab.
COLD WORK: Rescuers remove the injured man from the damaged cab.

Sowman was left trapped in the mangled cab, with the roof ripped open by a tree branch that had opened it like a tin can on the way down, and with water lapping at the door. The force of the river then began to push the cab further down the river towards deeper water.

He spoke about that day from his hospital bed yesterday, his uncovered legs revealing the extent of his injuries, along with delicately painted pink toenails courtesy of his daughters Kacey and Brittanie Sowman who took advantage of his captive state. He spoke of the horror, the pain, the minutes that seemed like a lifetime, as well as the "angel" who arrived to rescue him and the other extraordinary efforts by total strangers who fought to save his life.

"I was driving down the road and suddenly careered through a paddock, through some trees and over the bank. Everything was in slow motion at that point. I couldn't do a thing. I was really just along for the ride at that point."

The unladen logging truck which weighed about 10.5 tonnes flew through the air then smashed into the water. Sowman reckons the tree branch that almost took his head off, in fact saved his life.

"There was a large black beech tree with a branch a long way up - a branch with an elbow in it that hit the top of the cab and ripped off the roof. I think that saved my life. It tilted the cab back enough so it didn't plunge nose first into the river.

"There's nothing you can say in situations like that. It was close to taking my head off but there were two things I thought: 'You've clocked your ticket this time and you're not going to be able to say hooray to your daughters'."

Sowman reckons he was knocked out on impact. When he came to, he could not get the window of the cab door down or open the door. The dashboard was up against his face, he could see his knee was badly injured and he was drenched in freezing water.

Sowman looked for his two-way radio and cellphone but they had flown out through the front window when it smashed. Then the cab started to move. It rumbled down the river a bit, towards a deep hole in the river.

Sowman, a keen trout fisherman, is familiar with that area of the river.

"I thought, 'I've survived the crash but now I'm going to drown. I could move my left leg but my right leg had no power. I could see my knee was wrapped around the steering column and the pain in my hip ... I was drenched and frozen, but I've been told that helped me rather than hindered me."

The cab kept moving and was about 25 metres from deeper water.

"That's when I panicked and thought, 'I've got to get out of here'. Then the truck stopped moving. I had to tell myself to keep calm."

The former diesel mechanic, graphic artist and signwriter who was born and raised in Nelson, and began driving logging trucks many years ago, remembers sitting there stuck, wondering what to do, when "an amazing woman" suddenly appeared.

"She was particularly attractive and I thought, 'I'm not dead'.

Rafting guide Lisa Cooper was driving out of town to catch the Picton ferry, en route to a guiding job in Canada. She heard the Murchison fire siren alerting emergency services to the crash.

She told the Nelson Mail afterwards that she had all her rafting rescue kit in her car, so she chucked it on.

Constable Michael McDougall of Murchison was already at the scene and eagerly accepted her offer of help.

Cooper was able to take Sowman some pain relief medication and spoke with him. She then called her fellow guide Simon Cole to come and help, and he brought along a raft and his kit.

"I told her my leg was broken and she said, 'don't worry, we'll get you out'. She was a Godsend."

Cooper missed her ferry, but made the rest of the journey to Canada on time.

The complex rescue, which included McDougall having to drive a jet boat he had only just learned to operate, was made more difficult by the extent of Sowman's injuries, including a dislocated femur.

McDougall described the initial scene as the rescuers being "spectators without the right equipment".

He called Buller Canyon Jet but the owner was in Nelson. Luckily, he had trained McDougall to drive the jet boat.

"So that's when I made the call - we needed to get out to the truck. I raced back into town with one of the local farmers, and we grabbed the jet boat and whipped up the river."

The boat was used to ferry firefighters and paramedics to the truck. At the same time, the rafting guides were preparing a raft as a stable platform for the rescuers to use. Firefighters used cutting equipment to free Sowman from the mangled cab.

The Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter tried winching a paramedic from the chopper hovering above, but the rotor wash was too severe and they had to abandon that plan. The only option was to use a boat to ferry Sowman ashore.

"I lost it a bit when I saw the rescuers. I was worn out and freezing. Two of the volunteer rescuers got their arms under my armpits but one of them slipped in the raft - that wasn't planned but I went down and pinned them under me."

The pain relief had by then worn off.

"When they pulled me out of the truck, I had no pain relief. That's why I screamed. It was agonising - wet-your-pants agonising."

Once he was ashore the St John paramedic administered morphine. Meanwhile his sister in Nelson, Andrea Wallace, had heard from their mother what was happening.

She was at work - the same workplace that burned down this week in a large fire at the Wakatu Industrial Estate - making a cup of tea when she got the call with news of the crash.

Wallace said their parents went straight to Nelson Hospital to wait for the rescue helicopter.

The former St John volunteer in Australia gave high praise to the rescue effort, which she said was one no-one could ever really practise for.

"The way they clicked together was so amazing - the farmers and everyone who helped get the jet boat in the water, the local policeman who had just learned to drive the boat.

"Other boats came to the scene too, and all these people volunteered their time to help," Wallace said.

She was also grateful to the intensive care staff at Nelson Hospital, who "did a great job".

Sowman said he had so many to thank, but he was whisked away before he could.

"As soon as they got me out of the raft and into the chopper I lifted off and was gone, leaving everyone else to tidy up.

"It was very humbling and I still don't realise how many people I've scared. Friends who saw the photo of the truck in the paper cried. I freaked them out."

Wallace took to the streets yesterday and today for the annual rescue helicopter appeal and got a huge response, including $305 from people at Wakatu estate still reeling from this week's fire.

"I'm not doing it so much for Steve but for the next person who will need the helicopter."

Sowman said he also planned to volunteer his time to voluntary rescue services once he was better. It could be a year before he is walking properly.

He was not sure yet about his job, but he was not concerned.

"It's weird because it doesn't matter," he said.

"The stuff you think about in situations like that - if you look at the cab ... I shouldn't be here, but I am here, and now it's about what I'm going to do with that."

The Nelson Mail