Eleven years ago, Eli Muller, was the teenager survivor of a fiery crash that killed his best friend, Jordan Crockett, and injured six others in Bethlehem. It was the worst, and most defining moment of his life. This is his story of loss and perseverance, and how tragedy can inspire, if you let it
It's like when you're falling. When your stomach goes into your throat. It felt like that.
Not fearful in a sense, just like something was about to happen.
Milliseconds before impact, passenger Eli Muller says laughter in Jordan Crockett's car evaporates and the car fish-tails.
Oncoming headlights are 100 times brighter than the sun. His body tenses, his stomach flip-flops, and then … "Bang!" Darkness.
He's fiddling with his seatbelt. The car is on fire. Tyres are popping. His hair is burning. He can't move. His door is jammed. The left wheel is underneath his seat.
Rough and frantic hands are pulling him. He hears male voices. He's wet. He's being rolled over and over. He's cold.
When light comes back, a police officer is asking him questions. Muller, who is blackened with soot and has singed hair and eyelashes, feels his ears ringing. His vision is spotty.
He's riddled with guilt seeing injured people inside an ambulance, but he can't understand why he feels guilty.
He can't rationalise anything. He's in shock.
"You'd think it would push you backwards in some sense," Eli Muller says. "Life changes completely."
At age 28, he's done what some might've thought impossible - overcome tragedy and adversity.
He was 16 at the time of the crash on October 3, 2006, which killed Crockett, 17.
They were best friends since intermediate. They were like brothers.
Muller, the middle child, has two biological brothers, but at that emerging time in his life, his best friend was his closest ally.
On the night of the crash, they were doing what any normal mates might do - having a sleepover. They were joined by more friends, and one of them knew of a big paddock they could drive to and do skids.
The group separated into three cars. Muller and Crockett in one, and everyone drove in convoy. A light film of water covered the road.
Crockett, driving his Nissan Skyline, was driving too fast, and lost control at 9.35pm on a left-hand bend while overtaking a car in the right-hand passing lane on SH2, near Kinloch Drive, at Bethlehem.
His car spun out, smacking into a 4WD with six people inside and imploded on impact when the Skyline's fuel tank ruptured and both cars caught fire.
It was an alarming scene for the friend driving immediately behind the pair, who rounded the bend and was smacked with a swirl of smoke and fire.
Crockett was killed instantly from the high-energy impact. Muller survived because two passing members of the public, Dirk de Vries and Geoff Rothwell, dodged fire to release his seatbelt, and drag him out the passenger window, using their hands to put out flames on his hair and jersey and then roll him in wet grass.
Fifteen seconds after they pulled him out, the hood lining where Muller was sitting collapsed.
Rothwell and de Vries later received police bravery awards. It was a coincidence both men realised they knew him after they rescued him.
"I'm forever grateful and my parents certainly are," says Muller. "They still are affected by it. For one or two minutes [when police woke them up at 2am], my father thought I was dead. And he still carries it to this day. He loves those two men for saving my life.
The six Tauranga locals in the 4WD were all related, and all badly injured.
When Muller's parents, Steven and Victoria, broke the news of Crockett's death, Muller was in Tauranga Hospital, and much of the crash was a blackout. He was enveloped in silver bandages and medicated with morphine.
"People are telling me he's dead, but I hope he's okay," he told his parents.
He remembers one of his brothers being upset. "And my old man had to tell me."
Words that hurt to recall.
"It felt like I'd lost a family member; like I'd lost a brother. Then you go through the days after, and all I could think about was his parents. And that was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life - walk around to their house, and have them see me, and all the emotions that come with it. I don't wish that upon anyone."
He suffered burns to his face, shoulders and neck, and went to Crockett's funeral looking like he was wearing a mummy costume. He had his father read out something he'd written in hospital, in a drugged-out haze.
Several months later, Crockett's dad, Waid, gave a presentation to Otumoetai College students with all of the details of the crash, in the hopes of preventing further tragedies.
A battered Muller sat with him on stage. When it was over, they embraced each other for a long time.
"It was one of the most remarkable and courageous things I've ever seen a person do."
Muller is now grown up and lives in Australia, but Waid, who lost his only son, still phones him regularly. "He'll say: 'I had a feeling you might need to talk to me for whatever reason.' It's just like I'm a teenager again, and he's giving me fatherly wisdom. He tells me they're all very proud. His family has always treated me like a son, and a brother, and I carry them in my heart."
It's nice, because Muller doesn't go a day without thinking about Waid and Soraya Crockett's boy.
"He was never a malicious guy, never did anything to hurt anyone or bully anyone. He was certainly much better in that sense than I was. We were just boys, and teenagers, and you do silly things ... He just so happened to take a risk in a situation where the consequences were mortal."
Life is polarised by major events, and the crash was Muller's turning point.
Before the accident, he was disruptive in class. A bright boy, he was bored, disliked structure, and wanted to follow his nose with learning. He tested the boundaries in every way possible; challenging and frustrating anyone in authority.
For 12 months after the accident, he stopped caring about anything. Some kids at school treated him "weird" and certain teachers didn't know whether to stand back or get involved.
He skipped class and went surfing. He held in any "emotional breakdowns" until the night of the Year 13 ball, when the loss of Crockett "hit me like a train".
He credits former Otumoetai College principal Dave Randell and certain teachers for stepping in and pushing him to scrape enough credits to get into the University of Waikato.