Survival

Grandpa stranded for 36 hours in CROCODILE-INFESTED water after HELICOPTER CRASH

He was stuck in the mud as the tide came in...
Supplied/Australian Safety Transport Bureau

Kissing my wife Tina goodbye, I loaded up the helicopter and checked that my mate, Gaz, was buckled in.  ‘Ready for take off!’ I radioed.

Gaz and I were heading two hours north to Curtis Island, to fish and camp.

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Near our landing spot, I began to descend. At 30ft, I could see the sand below was clear of debris.

Suddenly, the helicopter shook violently. Then, the engine went quiet before the helicopter fell out of the sky.

Bang! We hit the water still upright.

Shards of the shattered windscreen pierced my flesh and the door was ripped off. The cabin instantly began to fill up with seawater. 

The force of the tide tipped the helicopter on its side and a wall of water rushed in…

In mere moments, it had risen above our shoulders.

‘I’m going to drown!’ Gaz screamed.

Helping him unclasp the harness, he pulled himself free through the hole in the chopper’s side.

‘Are you okay, mate?’ he yelled.

‘I don’t think so,’ I replied.

From the waist down, I was numb. ‘I think I’m a paraplegic,’ I said.

Unclipping my belt, I hauled myself out through the broken windscreen, my legs floating uselessly behind me.

‘We need to get the esky,’ I said.

Full of food and water, it was drifting out to sea, along with our backpacks.

Neither of us could swim.

Gaz had hurt his back and his foot was slashed nearly in half.

I tried to dive under the water to reach the emergency location beacon, but I’d broken my ribs.

The sandy shore was within sight, but with the tide going out we were about to get stuck on a mudflat.

Trying to doggy-paddle against the current, Gaz and I both shrieked in pain.

And I was getting dragged further out to sea!

About nine metres away from shore, I tried to skim across the now shallow water on my stomach.

But the tide was against me. I was stuck in the mud!

The hands on my watch ticked past tauntingly.

Now, it was just after midday.

Roughly 11 hours before the tide comes back, I calculated.

7News later took footage of the helicopter wreck when the tide was in.
7News later took footage of the helicopter wreck when the tide was in (Credit: 7News)

Slipping in and out of consciousness, two hours passed.

You’re not going to die today, I decided.

Digging my hands into the mud, I tried to dislodge myself and wiggle towards the shore.

In nine agonising hours, I inched forward six metres, finally reaching the sand.

Now, night had fallen.

Right in front of me was a sand mat meant for under the tent, so I pulled it over my soaking body to get me through the night.

Mozzies buzzed in my ears and I was terrified of being eaten alive by a croc.

Then, in the pitch black, I heard an almighty crash next to me. ‘Did you hear that?’ I called to Gaz.

Just then, I felt water rush over me.

‘The tide’s changed!’ I yelled.

Up to my neck in an instant, I thought I’d float.

But sand and mud had glued me to the ground.

Stacking my fists, I rested my chin on the tiny plat-form, gasping for air.

Knowing I had to fight for my family, I dug my elbows into the sand and tried to wriggle free.

Then, just as suddenly as the onslaught began, the tide went out again.

Passing out, I woke up later under the baking sun.

Gaz managed to slowly crawl back to the helicopter, where he found two cans of baked beans and a couple of bottles of juice.

Horrifyingly, the emergency locator beacon was lost.

Crabs crawled over my broken body and I was getting weaker by the minute.

As the sun set again, I knew we were in for another torturous night.

Chopper spotlights blinked above, but cloaked in mud, we were invisible.

Then, around midnight, a search party appeared through the mangroves.

After 36 hours, we were saved.

‘We were looking for dead bodies,’ a rescuer said, shocked.

Loaded into the chopper, the world went black.

When I woke up in hospital, I was surrounded by my precious family.

Turns out, a fisherman had found Gaz’s luggage, which had drifted from the wreckage.

Finding his wife’s phone number inside, the alarm was raised.

Poor Gaz had broken his back. I’d lost 18 kilos, my kidneys were failing, I’d broken my ribs, and I had a spinal injury.

I’d been in hospital a few weeks when the doctor broke the news.

‘You’ll never walk again,’ he said.

Cuddling Tina, we cried our hearts out.

But they didn’t know who they were dealing with…

‘You never give up,’ my wife said.

Two-and-a-half years on, after countless hours of rehab and stem cell treatment in Germany, I can move both my legs and I’ve taken steps with crutches and a walker.

Robert Van Kuyl getting stem cell treatment in Germany
Getting stem cell treatment in Germany (Credit: Supplied)
Robert and Tina Van Kuyl
Me and my precious wife Tina (Credit: Supplied)

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau found the likely cause of the crash was the main rotors stalling.

It was an awful accident.

But I’ll keep trying to walk until I’m back on my feet for good!

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