Anna Leask is senior police reporter for the New Zealand Herald.

Crash rescue: In saving him, they saved our whole family

To mark the Westpac Rescue Helicopters’ annual appeal, we speak to people who would have died at the scene of their accident if not for the rescue service.

As Steve Rastovich sat trapped in the mangled cab of his truck, crushed and losing blood, there was only one thing on his mind.

His family.

He thought about how they would hurt if he died, how his wife of 40 years would cope without him and what he would miss out on: his son, daughter and grandchildren, the rest of his life.

He drifted in and out of consciousness, hearing the emergency services crews at the scene discuss how to get his damaged body out of the cab, hearing the blades hit metal as they started to cut the vehicle apart.

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Then he heard a sound he will never forget: a helicopter coming closer, then landing.

He couldn't feel much at the time, but he remembers relief, and a lot of hope.

Steve's crash happened on February 22, 2010.

While driving at 90km/h the front right tyre of his truck exploded as he took a corner.

As he lost control, Steve had to choose between veering left and hurtling into a bank or right into the path of oncoming traffic.

The bank won and on impact the truck crumpled like a concertina.

"I couldn't get out, I was jammed up," Steve recalled.

"I thought of my wife, my family, what could be and what might not be, that was the biggest thing ... at the time I didn't feel much pain, it was just the things going through my head that was the worst part."

It wasn't the Morrinsville man's first crash; 45 years ago he crashed his truck into a power pole and had his left leg amputated.

That didn't stop him, the avid truckie was back behind the wheel as soon as he could manage it and went on to own his own transport company in South Auckland.

But sitting in the cab in 2010, he thought his time was up.

When Steve 'Hoppy' Rastovich was trapped in the cab of his truck his thoughts were with his family and what might happen if he didn't get home alive. Photo / Brett Phibbs
When Steve 'Hoppy' Rastovich was trapped in the cab of his truck his thoughts were with his family and what might happen if he didn't get home alive. Photo / Brett Phibbs

"I was trapped in there for about 90 minutes. That's a long time to be sitting in there," he said.

"A lot goes through your mind, your family ... I wasn't concerned about losing my other leg, I just wanted to get out of that bloody thing."

When they got Steve out of the truck he had lost a lot of blood and was losing more rapidly.

Then in came Greg Brownson from the Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter.

"He kept me together, he stabilised the leg and bound it straight," Steve said.

"He got me stable enough to be transferred to the helicopter and then we went through to Middlemore Hospital," said Steve, who earned the nickname Hoppy after his first accident.

"The flight was really rough, it was like boom boom boom the whole way but I was thankful to be in there.

"When we got to Middlemore the crew said to me 'well Hoppy, we'll either see you, or we won't' and that's when I realised I might not make it through this."

Steve was given 17 units of blood to replace what he'd lost and underwent surgery to repair what was left of his right leg which was hanging by, in his words, "a flap of skin".

His hip and knee were reconstructed and he's got steel rods the length of his limb.

Steve has had 15 operations since the crash and while he has ongoing pain issues but he has no complaints.

Steve 'Hoppy' Rastovich with his wife Frances. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Steve 'Hoppy' Rastovich with his wife Frances. Photo / Brett Phibbs

He can walk, but most importantly, he's alive to tell his tale.

His wife, Frances, said if there had been no rescue chopper that day, there is no doubt she would have had to bury her husband.

"Our 19-year-old son died in a car accident 23 years ago, so my life would have been absolutely ***t if Steve had died," she said.

"Without the Westpac crew I would not have a husband. They didn't just save him, they saved our family."

Frances said while in hospital Steve was hell bent on three things: walking again; going back to work; meeting the people who saved him to say thanks.

He achieved all three, and has only recently retired from driving.

"We went into the rescue base to meet the guys who helped Steve, they didn't know we were coming but the girls in the office made sure they were all there on the day.

"Greg burst into tears when he saw Hoppy walk in, to me, that was the ultimate; to walk in there and see the guys when he should never have lived, that was a really great thing."

May is the annual Westpac Rescue Helicopter appeal month.
Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter aim to raise at least $200,000 by June 30.
To donate to the Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter click here

The facts: Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter

• The Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust (ARHT) operates two Westpac rescue choppers.
• The helicopters are BK 117-850D2.
• The service covers 1.4 million people in the Auckland and Coromandel areas.
• They undertake about 1000 missions each year.
• Each mission costs around $8000 and although they get some funding, more than half of that cost is met through donations.
• Missions include emergency medical transfers, casualties/accidents and assisting police, fire, ambulance and search and rescue.
• The ARHT is the only rescue helicopter service in New Zealand to carry emergency trauma doctors on board.
• The ARHT is the only rescue helicopter service in New Zealand to carry whole blood on board, enabling the medical team to provide blood transfusions at the scene.

- Herald on Sunday

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