Saving lives worth singing about

By Martin Johnston

Teacher says he's here today because of lifeguards' quick actions.

Jamie McDell says when she connects to something strongly she writes a song about it. Photo /  APN
Jamie McDell says when she connects to something strongly she writes a song about it. Photo / APN

When Phil O'Connor realised his unprotected head was about to crash into a hard sand bar, he knew his body-surfing session could only end badly.

The teacher of children with special needs - and a repeat mayoral candidate - was in the surf at Pauanui on the Coromandel, enjoying his last wave of a summer beach holiday.

The choppy waves were a little over a metre high, but powerful enough to nearly kill Mr O'Connor, now aged 60.

"I got up on top of the wave and then I saw the sand right in front of my face and I knew it was going to be bad. Ka-boom, I was driven full-on into the sand on my head. It was like a huge truck was on my back.

Phil O'Connor survived but still suffers from fatigue. Photo / Greg Bowker
Phil O'Connor survived but still suffers from fatigue. Photo / Greg Bowker

"An incredible burst of pain exploded at the back of my neck and at the same time a high-decibel electrical siren began screaming in my head. Coming to, I remember floating about 30cm under the water, face down." Two friends and one of Mr O'Connor's six sons, Kieran, now 18, got his head out of the water and moved him to the beach.

"The lifeguards came screaming down, just as they got me on to the sand," said Mr O'Connor, recalling his January, 2010 ordeal to draw attention to Surf Life Saving NZ's summer fundraising appeal.

Hearing about the rescue inspired a new song, Saving, by musician and Surf Life Saving NZ ambassador Jamie McDell.

"I've been around lifeguards for a while now but I think that's when it really hit me, the importance of what we're here to do - to save lives," McDell said. "As I do with most things that I connect to strongly, I wrote a song about it."

Mr O'Connor said he regained consciousness on the beach and hearing lifeguard patrol captain Matt Williams say "stay with me" kept him going, "otherwise I would have sunk back to the blackness ... I was a heartbeat away from dying."

The lifeguards gave Mr O'Connor oxygen and applied a neck brace. He was flown in the Westpac rescue helicopter to Auckland City Hospital, where he spent 10 days.

The accident caused contusion to the spinal cord, and a brain injury. Mr O'Connor has made huge progress since his near-death experience. He runs and plays tennis but still suffers fatigue and works only two days a week.

Mr O'Connor said he owed his life to his rescuers. "The surf-lifesaving group, they are phenomenal. I would have been dead."

- NZ Herald

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