Three months ago, on a crisp mid-winter morning at Canterbury's high country Terrace Downs Golf Resort, Rachel Jordan was busy snapping pictures of the intimate wedding between Fay El Hanafy and Mahdi Zougub. But just hours later, the award-winning photographer was hurtling towards the ground inside a helicopter, beside Christchurch pilot Lynda Harrap and the newlywed couple.
The group had been heading to the picturesque Southern Alps to take romantic post-ceremony photos when the engine of the Robinson R44 failed shortly after take-off.
Rachel miraculously survived the crash, but suffered multiple injuries, including a broken back that has meant having to relearn how to sit, stand and eventually walk.
"It was weird because when the engine shut off, I didn't feel like I was going to die, but I had an automatic thought of, 'okay, I hope she's going to land it decently,'" recalls Rachel, who, after a lengthy hospital stay, is finally back home with her husband Eric, 43, and son, Evan, 10.
"I knew we'd probably be hurt to some degree and hoped it wasn't going to be too bad. It happened so fast."
Chatting to the Weekly, the owner of Bay of Islands-based photography studio Two Little Starfish says she had lost out on photographing 22 weddings because of the Covid pandemic and leapt at the opportunity of the June 12 nuptials.
"I got offered this wedding and the bride said they were going to go for it while there were no restrictions," tells Rachel, 41, who moved to New Zealand from California in 2011 with her designer husband and their then-6-month-old son. "I said, 'Well, I haven't had a lot of weddings this year, so sure, why not? It'll be fun.'"
Unbeknown to the bride and groom, their talented wedding photographer was afraid of flying – especially in helicopters.
"I've generally always been afraid of flying, which is funny because I travelled the world in my 20s taking photos and have been on so many different planes," Rachel says.
"Every time I get on one, I'm scared and my hands sweat. I hate going on helicopters, but with the wedding I thought it was worth it because I know when you get to the mountains, it's amazing."
The couple, who Rachel has kept in contact with, planned to have the second half of their wedding photos taken beside a backdrop of the Southern Alps.
On the day of the wedding, despite feeling an uneasiness about the anticipated helicopter journey, Rachel gathered her camera gear and set out for the day.
"My main focus was ensuring the bride got her magical day and her dream was to go on a helicopter ride. It was such a perfect day,it really was, until the crash."
The couple had said "I do" at around 1.30pm and stopped for photos before hopping into the chopper. Rachel sat next to pilot Lynda, whose flying skills have since been credited for saving the lives of all on board.
One saving grace is that as the helicopter plunged to the ground at the resort, no one felt the impact, having blacked out before the collision. When Rachel woke beside the wreckage, she was unaware her wrist and feet were broken, but felt pain in her back.
A surgeon and his group playing golf near the crash site immediately ran to their aid. Rachel recalls: "They touched my feet and I couldn't move my feet or toes. I knew from watching movies my back was broken and I was pretty messed up."
The men asked Rachel if she wanted to call anyone and she asked to speak to
her husband, who was back at home.
"I said, 'Honey, we've been in this crash and I know my back is broken,'" she shares. "My husband didn't know if I was being serious because I was speaking so calmly, but there was this screaming in the background."
While all four passengers survived, they were seriously injured. For Rachel, this has meant ongoing paralysis of varying degrees in her legs and hips. She was taken to the Intensive Care Unit at Christchurch Hospital, where she spent several weeks, before being transferred to Middlemore Hospital in Auckland, closer to Eric and Evan.
"It was pretty severe. They had to stick something in my chest to get the pressure out because I was getting liquid in my lungs, and I was on oxygen. I also broke my sternum and seven ribs, so it hurt to breathe for a while," says Rachel, who also suffered a collapsed lung. "Then I went through CT scans and straight into surgery."
She describes the first week in hospital as physically and mentally intense. Nurses had to turn Rachel every three hours and the pain was like nothing she'd experienced. The usually positive nature-lover found herself falling into a depression, despite the wonderful support of friends and family.
"I was in a horrible state and in extreme pain. Then I had a dream that changed everything," she says, tears welling. "I dreamt there were hands over my body and holding my hands, and it was a very intense feeling. The next day when I woke, it was the first time I wasn't in pain and my mind had completely changed into a positive direction. I felt like it was going to be okay."
Rachel weaned herself off the pain medication and began making all her own raw foods in hospital. And, incredibly, at the beginning of September, 12 weeks after the accident, she took her first steps.
"It started with being able to sit up for 20 seconds in a chair and then learning to stand. Everything was really wobbly and I put it down to feeling like you have a ton of sandbags attached to your legs," she explains. "I stood for a couple of weeks, then all of a sudden I could lift one leg and then both. Then I wondered if I could try walking."
On the day she was due to return home, Rachel wrapped her hands around physio bars at the hospital and slowly attempted to walk. When her legs shifted one after the other, it was one of the greatest moments of her life. Encouraged, she spent another week in hospital to continue her walking progress.
By then, she hadn't seen her son for more than a month because of the level 4 lockdown, but delighted Evan when she returned home with plenty of plans for arts and crafts, cooking, movie watching and long cuddles.
Although Rachel's feet are still partially paralysed, she can move her toes, which she is grateful for.
"As well as being away from my son and stuck inside, the hardest thing was not having complete control over my body," she tells. "I'm really into having goals and it has been hard not knowing what's to be. But part of this whole experience has been learning to feel okay with that."
Happy to be home with her boys and in the peace and quiet of her beloved organic garden again, Rachel's focus is on appreciating the things she missed most and continuing her slow but steady recovery.
"The very first day I arrived in hospital, I told everybody I wasn't leaving there in a wheelchair. I refused! Then, literally the day I was meant to leave, I started to walk, so I was happy," she beams. "The next goal is to be walking on my own in a couple of months. So far, everything is coming back pretty well, so I just hope for the best."
But the experience has motivated Rachel to want to create an organisation to help people in wheelchairs feel beautiful by giving them free photo shoots.
"I had this weird time going to the mall and one person came up and said they felt bad for me, while an employee at a camera shop didn't even think I was a photographer because I was in a wheelchair and talked down to me," she recalls. "It really opened my eyes. Literally anybody can have a fall and hurt their spine, but when people go out in a wheelchair, others don't see them – just the chair."
And while she doesn't know if her future will include wedding photography just yet, Rachel hopes to visit the mountains Fay and Mahdi never had a chance to see, and to finally capture their special couple shots.
On that fateful day, only half of the wedding shots were taken.
"To go back and take photos in the mountains and have a party will be like a beautiful closure for them and me," Rachel smiles.
"This time, though, we'll drive there!"