Race to pluck man off ship

The Otago Regional Rescue Helicopter moves into position above a Korean fishing vessel in the...
The Otago Regional Rescue Helicopter moves into position above a Korean fishing vessel in the Southern Ocean ready to assist an injured New Zealand fisheries observer. Photo by Helicopters Otago.
In a race against darkness, the crew of the Otago Regional Rescue Helicopter flew a challenging mission to save a man who lost part of an arm in an accident aboard a foreign fishing vessel.

New Zealand fisheries observer Martin Bowers, whose brother is Dunedin doctor Andrew Bowers, is now in Dunedin Hospital having had a forearm mutilated when his life jacket became snagged on a conveyor belt on a Korean fishing vessel about 105km southeast of Bluff on Friday night.

Helicopters Otago owner and pilot Graeme Gale said the mission on Friday night required flying 180km from the Taieri airport to the ship, which took about one hour.

''We were fighting fading light ... the tricky bit is winching the person and paramedic up, but we got it done in daylight.''

Night-vision goggles and instrumentation were required for the flight back to Dunedin, he said.

''There were a lot of challenges. To get him to hospital in under three hours is pretty amazing when you're talking about the Southern Ocean.''

Maritime New Zealand (MNZ) has launched an investigation into the accident.

The rescue helicopter was called about 8.30pm after Mr Bowers, a fisheries observer with the Ministry for Primary Industries, suffered the injury.

A paramedic was winched on to the ship, where he stabilised Mr Bowers (47), who is from Whitianga, before he was flown to Dunedin Hospital about 9.30pm, a MNZ spokeswoman said.

Mr Bowers' mother, Mary, said her son had a ''total, horrible accident'' as he was putting on his life jacket.

''Part of it caught in a belt that was moving, and it tore his shoulder out and mutilated his arm a bit. He's had part of his arm cut off. Horrific.''

Mr Bowers' dislocated shoulder had to be put back into place, while his forearm had to be amputated below the elbow.

Mr Bowers' uncle, George Robertson, said his nephew had been climbing up towards the ship's deck when the life jacket was caught in a conveyor belt.

''It yanked him in there, tore his left arm right out of the socket.''

Mr Robertson said his nephew was expected to remain in hospital for at least two weeks.

He seemed in good spirits, joking with his daughter and telling her he was now a pirate with one hand.

''The fact that he could talk was a good sign, as far as I could see,'' Mr Robertson said.

Mrs Bowers said her son underwent skin graft surgery yesterday and doctors had decided they did not need to remove any more of his arm.

He was progressing favourably last night and was no longer in the high dependency unit, a Dunedin Hospital spokesman said.

Mrs Bowers said her son's daughter and brother, who both lived in Dunedin, were by his side. His girlfriend, a nurse, had also joined him. He was in quite considerable pain but was grateful to hospital staff, she said.

He enjoyed his job as a fisheries observer and had plenty of seagoing experience. He used to do charter trips in Whitianga and was a local game fishing club president.

''He's a really super guy, he just loved that job. I suppose he'll be hoping one day he'll get back to it. With an artificial arm, it won't hold him back,'' Mrs Bowers said.

''He knows his way around a boat - there's no way in the world that he doesn't. It was just an accident.''

It was Mr Bowers' second accident at sea in 13 years.

In 2001, with his father Earle, he was on a fishing trip in Fiji when a rogue wave tipped their boat and threw them on to a coral reef.

He dragged his injured father through the water and over sharp coral back to shore, cutting his feet.

The MNZ spokeswoman said an investigation into Friday's incident would begin today.

She would not name the Korean-flagged ship, or give out any details about the vessel and its crew, while the investigation was ongoing.

Ministry for Primary Industry's director-general Martyn Dunne had been in touch with Mr Bowers and his family who were with him.

''I am deeply concerned by what has happened. Our thoughts are with our staff member and his family.

There will be an investigation into this incident, but right now our focus is on supporting him and his family.

''MPI's fisheries observers do critical work, often in difficult conditions, to assure the sustainability of New Zealand's fisheries,'' he said.

Additional reporting Rebecca Quilliam, of APNZ.

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