CUT off from medical help on both sides of their rural home, a Gisborne family says they were ecstatic to see a helicopter land in their neighbour’s paddock.
The night of Cyclone Gabrielle the McNaught family could hear the roar of the Hangaroa River, over the road from their Tiniroto home, and the thunder as boulders crashed onto the tarmac from the mountainous hillside above.
But it was not until the next day they realised that the bluff had collapsed on the road on the Gisborne side of their home while, the other way leading to Wairoa, slips had blocked the half of the
road that hadn’t fallen into the river.
“We couldn’t get out either way . . . we were completely cut off,” says Sarah-Jane McNaught, who lives in the family’s 1920s farmhouse with husband Aaron, four-year-old Arthur and, when they can, two teen stepchildren.
There were attempts to open a bypass through nearby Panikanapa Road, but access was patchy and turned a 10-minute trip to nearby Waeranga-o-Kuri into an hour of traversing “a dodgy road”.
Then on February 22 – just over a week after the cyclone hit – Arthur broke his arm.
“The one advantage to being blocked in was we could take Arthur to ride his electric motorbike on the road, just like a big boy, and know no vehicles would be coming,” Sarah-Jane says.
“We don’t know if he hit a stone, or just got the wobbles, but he went over and it was pretty clear something bad had happened.”
With no way of getting to town, and no way for an ambulance to reach them, the worried parents debated whether they should activate the Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) Aaron has as a member of the Character Roofing Gisborne Surf Life Saving Search and Rescue squad.
“Phone services were still down but, because we had internet, we were able to contact someone who said ‘just do it, then they’ll have your co-ordinates and will know where to find you’” Sarah-Jane says.
“We’d always thought it was for life-and-death emergencies – especially in the middle of a cyclone disaster – but there was no choice so we pressed the button.”
Within minutes the Trust Tairāwhiti Eastland Rescue Helicopter was on its way but poor visibility in the early evening light, and swinging power lines, meant it couldn’t land on the McNaught’s front lawn that Aaron had “lit up like a runway”.
So the crew set down in a neighbouring paddock, the worried father rushing off on his quad bike to pick up the Critical Care Flight Paramedic.
“We couldn’t believe how quickly they got here, it was only around 20 minutes, and were so relieved to see them,” says Sarah-Jane.
“And they were amazing with Arthur. He was upset, tired and in a lot of pain but, before flying us to Gisborne Hospital they comforted him, gave him a little toy car, and showed him pictures of
motorbikes, which he loves!”
While treating their young patient the crew also reassured the family that activating the PLB was the right call.
“They told us that you don’t need a special reason, like Aaron does, to have a PLB,” says Sarah-Jane.
“Just living miles away from help means you should have one and, if the time comes, use it. We are just so grateful for the speed of the service, and how much care they showed us.”
Sarah-Jane believes it was particularly tough for her husband to realise that, if something happened, he couldn’t just “scoop us up” and get his family to safety.
“This time, that was not an option,” she says. “We’ve been here nearly seven years and for the first time realised just how isolated we are.
“Being so helpless really brought home how much of a lifeline the helicopter service is. It deserves every bit of support it can get.”
Sarah-Jane feels lucky Arthur was treated and recovered quickly and, as she and Aaron deal with the massive cyclone damage to their property, their son has a cool story to tell.
“He’ll tell anyone who will listen that he broke his arm and got to ride in a helicopter,” she says. “So now we have a new ‘legend of Arthur’”
– The Trust Tairāwhiti Eastland Rescue Helicopter operates with the support of the Eastland Helicopter Rescue Trust.
CAPTION: His Spiderman t-shirt couldn’t save him, but the Trust Tairāwhiti Eastland Rescue Helicopter did when Arthur McNaught (4) was injured near his isolated Tiniroto home.