The woman who watched her husband and son crash: 'I thought I'd lost them both'

BRADEN FASTIER / Stuff.co.nz

Dan and Andrea with son Andre and daughter Yasmina. The Nelson family are recovering from the impact of a serious road crash last year.

In the lounge, Andre, 12, is playing a computer game. Yasmina, 15, is in her room.

Dan and Andrea are talking on the couch.

The wreck of Dan and Andre's car after the head-on crash on State Highway 6, near Okaramio, in Marlborough, on April 25, ...

The wreck of Dan and Andre's car after the head-on crash on State Highway 6, near Okaramio, in Marlborough, on April 25, 2016.

It's a normal family scene on a bright winter's Saturday afternoon at their Nelson home. The only sign of something out of place are the thin strips of physio tape on Andre's legs.

They are part of a much bigger, at times distressing story.

The latest available figures show there were 3791 serious injury crashes on New Zealand roads in 2015. They do not get the same coverage as fatal accidents, but ripples from them spread out from the moment of impact and can last for years, disrupting lives in all sorts of ways.

Andre and Dan were reunited in Wellington Hospital in May 2016,  almost two weeks after the crash that nearly killed them.
Supplied

Andre and Dan were reunited in Wellington Hospital in May 2016, almost two weeks after the crash that nearly killed them.

For Andrea and Dan it has been a year of physical and mental trauma and desperate lows, but also of resilience, support, love and gratitude.

'THEY ARE NOT GOING TO SURVIVE THAT'

Andrea was only metres away when she saw the head-on collision that changed her family's life.

Dan and Andrea with son Andre and daughter Yasmina. The Nelson family are recovering from the impact of a serious road ...
BRADEN FASTIER

Dan and Andrea with son Andre and daughter Yasmina. The Nelson family are recovering from the impact of a serious road crash last year.

"I saw the impact of the cars going up in the air and my brain to be honest said 'they are not going to survive that'."

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In the crumpled wreck ahead of her were her husband Dan and her then 11-year-old son  Andre. The family were travelling back from Christchurch to Nelson on Anzac Day last year when the accident  happened near Okaramio, north-west of Blenheim.

Dan and Andre were in Dan's work car, a Holden Barina; Andrea and daughter Yasmina were following in the new family car they had bought that weekend.

The Nelson family is still feeling the impacts of the crash near Blenheim 16 months ago.
BRADEN FASTIER / Stuff

The Nelson family is still feeling the impacts of the crash near Blenheim 16 months ago.

Andrea recalls seeing a utility vehicle veering across the centre line before the shattering impact on a straight section of road. It may have clipped a car in front of Dan's before ploughing into his small car almost head-on at close to 100kmh.

Somehow, Andrea managed to swerve around the mangled vehicles and stay on the road. Unopened bottles of beer that smashed on impact and freshly caught fish - the occupants of the other vehicle were returning from a trip in the Sounds - littered the road.

"I said to Yasmina, just stay here, don't look, don't look, don't get out of the car. Then I just ran to the car. I was not expecting to find them alive but they were both actually conscious."

The front of the Barina had compressed to the engine wall, the front seats were full of airbags, and it had auto locked. Someone grabbed a child's metal scooter to smash the back window.

Andre was lying across the front passenger seat, struggling to breathe; Dan was trapped in the driver's seat, his right leg "folded in half" at the thigh.

Others at the scene, pumped up with adrenalin, wanted to pull Dan out, fearing the car could burst into flames.

"I remember being very frantic," Andrea said. "I said don't touch my husband! Don't move him! I was screaming like a mad banshee."

Andrea can't explain her instinctive response, but it's one that Dan and rescuers credit with saving his life.

"It turned out he had a broken neck and huge internal injuries, and if they had moved him, he would have died," Andrea says.

The next hour was a blur of action as firefighters worked to cut Dan free. As well as his broken right thigh, his right  foot was crushed under the brake pedal, he had life threatening internal injuries caused by the seat belt, eight broken ribs, a fractured sternum, broken right knee and wrist.

His C7 spinal fracture carried a high risk of permanent paralysis even with the expertise of the rescuers.

He remained conscious throughout. He has no recollection of the pain but knew "a whole lot of stuff was wrong", and got distressed,  when he saw Andre.

His son had two broken arms, a broken pelvis and a traumatic brain injury that only became apparent in hospital.

"I said it's not your fault, there was nothing you could do," Andrea told Dan, trying to calm him and stop him from trying to move.

When he was freed, the Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter was in a nearby paddock waiting to fly him to Nelson.

Andrea had to go with Andre by ambulance to Blenheim's Wairau Hospital, leaving Yasmina in deep shock to be cared for by passers-by until Dan's mother could drive from Nelson to pick her up.

"That was probably one of the hardest things," Andrea says. "Not only leaving Yasmina with complete strangers, I had to leave Dan, but I didn't really have any choice."

It was to be a recurring theme for the family over the next year; long periods of being apart as medical teams tried to put the broken father and son back together.

In Blenheim, Andre's brain injury meant he had to be transferred to intensive care in Wellington.

At the same time Andrea was pacing the corridors waiting for news from the other side of the Whangamoas where Dan was undergoing critical surgery for his life threatening bowel injuries in Nelson Hospital.

"I can't explain the level of fear and deep panic I felt," she says.

"The surgeon Jane Strang rang me and said I will do my best. I said that does not sound good Jane."

LONG ROAD BACK

But after four hours of surgery, Dan pulled through. The same Life Flight Trust plane that flew Andre to Wellington immediately returned to Nelson to take his father back to the capital.

For the next 10 days the pair were in intensive care. During this period Andrea suffered flashbacks, the moment of the collision replaying on a terrible, repetitive loop.

"It was very scary and physically draining," she says. Thankfully a trauma specialist recognised the signs and explained it was the brain's response to trauma, and it gradually subsided after 10 days.

When father and son returned to wards there was a touching reunion as Dan was wheeled into Andre's room.

"It was pretty cool," Dan says.

Andrea recalls another visit when Dan told her he was just going to shut his eyes for a minute. "The next thing he's asleep and then I looked over at Andre and he was asleep as well."

"So I sat there with two boys having a wee sleep together," Andrea says.

"Party in the boys' room," says Dan.

It was a bright spot in a dark time. When Andre had been brought out of sedation, a CT scan revealed he had suffered a stroke, thought to be caused by the impact, leaving him without movement on his right side. He couldn't walk, move his right arm or hand and lacked the strength to hold his head up.

It was a particularly cruel blow because Andre has Fragile X, a genetic condition resulting in a range of developmental and behavioural issues. For Andre it has meant a significant learning disability, high anxiety and sensory issues.

"All the sensory things we find easy are hard for him," Andrea says.

She says the condition added a layer of complication, requiring medical staff, for example, to be simple and direct in their interactions.

But in other ways it may have helped in his long recovery.

While other children may have struggled to accept their injuries, "Andre just accepted every moment for what it was, he was really determined and focused."

Dan says Andre "always had to work so hard to be independent; it just upped the game to make sure he could be."

Andre was transferred to the Wilson Centre in Auckland, the only residential rehabilitation facility for children in the country, where the hard work of his recovery began.

For the next four months the family was split; Andrea in Auckland with Andre, Dan in Wellington, then Nelson. Yasmina, in her first year at Nelson College for Girls,  stayed with Dan's mother Olwyn - "one of the real heroes of this story," says Dan - to  try to keep some sense of normality.

At the Wilson centre Andre's  daily companions were physiotherapists, occupational therapists, speech language therapists and other rehabilitation experts.

Initially he needed a hoist to be moved from his bed to a wheelchair, but gradually over four months he regained movement in his right leg and strength to learn to walk again.

"He worked incredibly hard in therapy; they were delighted and amazed by him," Andrea says.

Andre still doesn't have a functional grip in his right hand, and walks with a limp. The thin physio tape strips are supporting his range of motion. He still gets physio twice a week and it's likely he will have a lifelong weakness on his right side.

For Dan it was a succession of surgeries. He needed a stoma bag after having 20cm of his small bowel removed.  

It was uncertain whether he would need the bag permanently but doctors managed to successfully "replumb" him. He was discharged from hospital in June but has had multiple surgeries on his various injuries, and faces several more.

He finally returned to his technical consultant job at Computer Concepts Ltd in January this year, nine months after the accident.

He says the firm has been exceptional in supporting the family: "They really went above and beyond to make sure everything was ok".

Dan and Andrea say they do not spend time thinking about the driver of the other car. The Wellington man was convicted on four counts of aggravated careless driving causing injury (two of the occupants of his car were also injured) and paid reparation of $5000.

"You can't dwell on what other people do, (and) we just focus on putting all your energy into what we can control and getting a positive outcome for our family," Andrea says.

GRATEFUL TO BE HERE

Sixteen months on, Dan reflects on what should have been a simple journey home.

He has a rod and pins in his thigh, still has physiotherapy for his crushed foot, and has to have his fractured wrist fused. His hand injury makes simple things like writing, riding a bike and mowing the lawns difficult.

But he says his "main sentiment is gratefulness for mostly just being alive. Also just the incredible amount of help and support we have got right from the moment of the tragedy."

Gratitude is also Andrea's overriding emotion, despite the mental, emotional and physical toll the accident has had on her and her family.

"I'm incredibly thankful they are both alive. In that split second I thought I had lost them both.

"I would rather have Andre the way he is than not at all and I would certainly rather have my husband alive. Our job now is to make the best of it."

She is also grateful for the support they have received, from her sister Vicki who stayed with her for three weeks in Wellington; from other family members and friends,  and for the ongoing medical care.

Andre thankfully seems to have processed the trauma from the accident and is back to his happy, cheerful self.

On the couch between his parents he says only that: "My head was sore,".

Then he returns to a patch of sun in the lounge to make his favourite Toy Story puzzle.

DESIGN WINS AND LOSSES

There is a cluster of grey dots and one red cross on a map of State Highway 6 near the small Marlborough settlement of Okaramio.

The cross represents a fatality; the six dots on the New Zealand Transport Agency map are crashes where at least one person has been seriously injured between 2006 and 2016.

Dan and Andre's crash in April 2016 was one of them.

The map was on display this week when the  NZTA hosted an open day at Founders Park to get feedback on plans to improve the state highway between Blenheim and Nelson.

It has identified improving the highway - an important freight link, a popular tourist route and a favourite ride for motorcyclists - as a priority because of the large number of crashes on it. 

Between 2006 and 2016  20 people have died and 93 have been seriously injured on the 110km section that travels through diverse terrain. The stretch from Okaramio, where Dan and Andre's accident happened,  to Havelock was one of the most dangerous, with five deaths in the past 10 years.

Dan placed a sticky note on the grey dot representing his accident. "Rumble strips, shoulder width," he wrote. "Particlularly bad accident in April 2016."  

Dan says ideally median strips would be a major crash prevention tool on the country's highways, including the site of his crash,  but he accepts the country's low population and long roads make it extremely costly.

Rumble strips are a cheaper tool, but there was a chance they could have alerted the driver of the other vehicle when he began drifting across the centre line.

"I'm certainly keen for much more to be happening with better road safety and design," Dan says. "But it is a compromise we have made because we choose to be hyper mobile."

He also supports the call from the Automobile Association this month for the Government to spend much more on upgrading rural parts of the highway network where many fatal crashes occurred.

About 40 per cent of the highway network has a two-star rating, meaning they have hazards such as narrow shoulders, ditches and slanting surfaces.

Research suggested improving two-star highways to three-star would halve the number of serious injuries.

While road design may lag, Dan says he is thankful for the design of modern cars that helped him and Andre survive the impact.

The small Holden Barina he was driving was only a year old, and had the safety features that absorbed the massive forces from the collision.

Airbags, front and side impact protection and a strengthened frame around the driver and passenger did their job.

Andrea says simply an older car would not have saved her husband and son. "If I see older cars on the road now, I think that you are driving a death trap," she says.

Dan has not been back to the scene of the accident yet, but he is back behind the wheel. "Getting back on the horse really is the only cure for it."

 - Stuff

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