Three helicopter crew miraculously survived after crashing into the freezing ocean near the remote Auckland Islands and swimming to shore injured in the dark of night.
Helicopter pilot Andrew Hefford, paramedic John Lambeth and winchman Lester Stevens were recovering in Southland Hospital last night after they were found yesterday on a beach on one of the subantarctic islands, 450km south of New Zealand.
Lloyd Matheson, operations manager for Southern Lakes Helicopters, said the men had swum to the nearest island after their helicopter ditched into the Southern Ocean on Monday night about 8pm.
One of the crew was knocked unconscious when the aircraft hit the water, and the other two men had to extract him from the wreckage.
A lifecraft was on the twin-engine helicopter - a requirement for travelling over water - but it does not appear to have been used.
The men made it to the closest shore despite the darkness and with no lights on the island to guide their way. It was a cool 10C at the time they were believed to be in the water.
It was not known how far they swam, but they were picked up at Ranui Cove on the main island, between two and three kilometres from the helicopter's wreckage.
The three men had flown to the area to evacuate a sick passenger on a vessel and had planned to stay the night at a Department of Conservation (DOC) base on Enderby Island before attempting the rescue the following morning.
DOC director-general Lou Sanson, who worked on the Auckland Islands for 15 years, said it was a nightmarish place to crash.
"It would have been super cold. Fortunately they had a bit of moon, and the current was with them, but it's a pretty formidable coastline. There have been so many shipwrecks there.
"What happened that night is pretty miraculous."
HeliOtago chief pilot Graeme Gale, who flew one of three helicopters involved in the rescue mission, said the men were particularly happy to be wearing cold water immersion suits.
Immersion suits were typically designed to maintain a comfortable body temperature in conditions as low as -30C, and were buoyant like a lifejacket.
The survival of all three crew was an outcome few people had expected on hearing of the helicopter's disappearance on Monday night, he said.
"It's an unbelievable result. I think there'll be a couple of drinks had tonight."
The last point of contact from the helicopter was at 7.37pm near Yule Island - at the northern end of the Auckland Islands group. At around 8.15pm, Southern Lakes Helicopters told the Rescue Coordination Centre NZ that its aircraft was missing.
Wreckage of the twin-engine helicopter was found near Yule Island by a fishing boat just yesterday morning.
Leading the search party for the trio was Sir Richard "Hannibal" Hayes, the head of Southern Lakes Helicopters and one of New Zealand's most experienced pilots.
"We went down there expecting the worst and came away with the best," he said yesterday.
An elated Hayes spoke to the Otago Daily Times on a day which began as his
darkest, but ended as one of his best.
"Well put it this way, it was probably one of the best days of my life,'' he said.
"It was absolutely such a great sight to see three guys standing on this rocky, bouldery beach in the subantarctic islands.'
"To go there and get a result of three people standing on the beach in immersion suits ... just outstanding."
Hayes credited helicopter underwater escape training for helping the trio escape from the downed craft and make their way to shore.
Senior Search and Rescue officer Dave Wilson said the survivors were in remarkably good condition given the circumstances. One had suspected broken ribs and a broken wrist, another had a broken nose and the third man was uninjured.
"Crashing a helicopter in the water and having to escape from that and get to the beach - to be walking around afterwards is very fortunate," Wilson said.
The cause of the crash was still being investigated, Wilson said. No distress signal was received and the alarm was only raised when the helicopter company Southern Lakes had not received communications from the team.
Matheson said the lack of communication with the helicopter in the moments before the crash remained a mystery.
There were four means of communication on board the helicopter but "everything stopped'' either just before or on impact.
"That last two minutes - we agonised over why that had happened.''
There were many possibilities, including a bird strike or an electrical fault, he said.
He was meant to be on the flight but was replaced by Lester at the last minute because he had to attend a funeral.
"I definitely have some mixed feelings about the whole situation, I was meant to be there but asked my mate to stand in for me," Matheson said.
"We are elated to hear they are safe, this is the best news, it is like 10 Christmases have come at once."
- additional reporting: Otago Daily Times