The long road back

Harrison Kemp, who suffered serious head and leg injuries in 2008, required further surgery in...
Harrison Kemp, who suffered serious head and leg injuries in 2008, required further surgery in 2011 and more recently developed kidney stones, says the past decade has been "a bit of a rocky road". "But you live on the ups and forget about the downs..." Photo: Peter McIntosh
In January 2008, a freak car crash in the Dunedin suburb of St Kilda left one boy dead and another seriously injured. Survivor Harrison Kemp talks to Kim Dungey. 

The day that changed his life started out like any other for Harrison Kemp.

On January 14, 2008, the 12-year-old, his older brother and their parents returned to Dunedin from their annual summer break in Clyde where cycling, swimming and water-skiing were regular family activities.

Harrison enjoyed playing rugby, touch, softball, T-ball and badminton and was looking forward to starting his second year at Tahuna Intermediate School, where his favourite subject was maths. But before then, he wanted to call on friend Simon Charlton who lived just a street away. The pair had met the year before and shared a passion for rugby and cricket.

Spending time together was not unusual; the boys hung out together most days. But this one would end in tragedy when just after 10pm they asked Simon's father if they could ride in the closed boot of his Ford Mondeo on Harrison's way home.

As they left the Charlton house, 24-year-old Alec Porter was driving south along Prince Albert Rd. Porter, who had three teenagers in his Subaru, turned into Richardson St and accelerated heavily. At the intersection with Moreau St, the vehicles collided.

While the Subaru travelled through the side wall of a nearby house, stopping almost completely inside an unoccupied bedroom, the Ford spun in a circle and hit a wooden power pole, Mr Kemp (now 23), says.

"It was dark [in the boot]. We were listening to Britney Spears, singing at the top of our lungs. Then I remember we came to a stop and from there, it's a bit blurry."

As a result of the impact, both boys were flung from the boot. Eleven-year-old Simon was thrown through a wooden fence and died from his injuries. Harrison was knocked out when he landed on the footpath.

Harrison Kemp in Dunedin Hospital after his 2008 accident. Photo: Supplied
Harrison Kemp in Dunedin Hospital after his 2008 accident. Photo: Supplied
A few blocks away, in their renovated Ings Ave villa, Gail and Jonathan Kemp did not hear the sirens of the approaching police cars and ambulances. Concerned he was out so late, Ms Kemp had been texting her youngest son: if he didn't get home straight away, his cellphone would be confiscated. One car was still hooked up to the family boat; the other to a loaded trailer but she had already decided to go get him when the door bell rang. The two police officers who stood outside could not answer her first question, "Is he alive?", because Harrison had been rushed away in an ambulance.

At the hospital, a nurse advised her and her then husband to concentrate on their breathing because what they were about to see would be scary. Seconds before passing out, Harrison told his parents he could smell petrol and was frightened.

A deep gash to the back of his head required more than 20 staples. Another cut ran from his lips to his nostrils. The femur, tibia and fibula in his left leg were shattered.

Two weeks after being admitted to hospital, he "flat-lined" and needed a blood transfusion.

However, his mother says he was "the luckiest boy alive": a nurse who lived in Richardson St heard the "almighty smash" of the cars colliding, ran out into the dark and tripped over Harrison who was fading in and out of consciousness.

"She kept him going until they got him in an ambulance, telling him to stay with her and that he was going to be all right."

Of his time in hospital, Mr Kemp vividly recalls two things; being "blown away" by what had happened and "absolutely broken" when eventually told that Simon had died. Not well enough to attend the funeral, he asked for his greenstone pendant to be placed in his friend's blue and gold coffin.

By the time he left hospital almost a month later, his mother had quit her chef's job to look after him. He needed help with simple tasks such as showering, faced months of physiotherapy and for nearly two years used a wheelchair and crutches. An external fixator remained on the top of his leg for more than a year, keeping his fractured bones stabilised and in alignment. He also struggled emotionally, questioning why it was not he who was killed, whether the accident would have happened had he not been there, and what the future held.

However, he was determined to return to school as soon as possible, even if it was only for a few exhausting hours a week and more for the social aspect than the "academic side of things".

Ten months after the accident, he completed a 10km sponsored walk to raise money for the Dunedin Hospital children's ward, stopping occasionally to rest in a wheelchair but refusing to use his crutches.

Eleven years on, his appreciation of life is as obvious as the white, 15cm-long scar on one shin.

When other family members were relaxing after Christmas lunch last month, Mr Kemp suddenly decided they should go for a swim in the Taieri River, his mother says.

"We started walking at Outram Glen and went to the end of the track. It nearly killed me. But that's Harrison, full of energy ..."

After studying travel and tourism, the man who grew up in and around his father's camera store was "stoked" to land a photographer's job with AJ Hackett in Queenstown. He also made more than 50 bungy jumps himself.

"There's no getting used to it. Your heart starts skipping ... but it's amazing breaking that fear barrier."

He now works as a consultant at Les Mills, in Dunedin, signing up new members to the gym. He flats with brother Leighton, has a partner and likes to skateboard. On weekends, he restores old furniture. On quiet nights, he occasionally "talks" to Simon.

In 2011, after years of walking with a limp, Mr Kemp was told that his left leg was not growing properly and would have to be re-broken. That meant wearing an external fixator, this time on the bottom of the leg, for about nine months and resulted in frequent trips to hospital with infections. His left hip is sometimes "niggly", his short-term memory is poor and at 20, he developed painful kidney stones.

Harrison Kemp strides down Maungatua Rd, near Outram, in October 2008, in preparation for a 10km...
Harrison Kemp strides down Maungatua Rd, near Outram, in October 2008, in preparation for a 10km fundraiser. Photo: ODT files
But despite doctors giving him only a slight chance of returning to rugby, the plucky 168cm-tall, 76kg halfback did just that, making the King's High School 1st XV and continuing to play until two years ago.

"People love to run at the smallest guy and that was my favourite part, tackling."

"I think I've healed miraculously," he says.

"I'm super happy with my recovery."

Ms Kemp says the family was determined not to feel sorry for themselves and a positive attitude played a big part in her son's recuperation.

Alec Porter, who admitted his dangerous driving caused Simon's death and injured four others, including Mr Kemp, was sentenced to two years in prison. The court heard he had been driving at twice the legal speed limit and outside the terms of his restricted licence.

David Charlton was given diversion on a charge of careless driving.

Mr Kemp does not understand how Simon's father thought it was a good idea to let the boys ride in the boot - on the night of the accident and one previous occasion - but is not angry with him.

He is thankful for the support of family, friends and medical staff.

"Kids will be kids, I suppose, but it's unbelievable really, all the circumstances that fell into place at one exact moment."

"The message is, don't ever get into the boot of a vehicle, even if you think it's a good idea. It's the stupidest idea ever ..."

"It's bizarre how something can change just like that," his mother adds.

"We're grateful Harrison is with us."


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