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Three men rescued from an island beach in the Southern Ocean after their helicopter crashed into the sea are safely back in Southland.
The men arrived in two Otago Regional Rescue helicopters about 4.30pm today and walked into Southland Hospital unaided for a checkup.
Southern Lakes Helicopters pilot Andrew Hefford, paramedic John Lambeth and winch operator Lester Stevens had been helping with a medical evacuation of a person from a ship near Macquarie Island yesterday when their aircraft crashed near the Auckland Islands, 465km south of New Zealand.
The company raised the alarm on Monday evening after communication with the helicopter was lost about 7.30pm. Its owner and chief pilot, Sir Richard Hayes, located the men walking on a beach on the north-eastern side of Enderby Island this morning.
The trio - two with helmets on and all wearing orange jumpsuits - climbed from the Otago Regional Rescue helicopters and walked into the hospital in Invercargill unaided.
Mr Hefford not hurt in the crash, however Mr Lambeth had suffered a “limb injury” and Mr Stevens was knocked unconscious when the helicopter went down.
Mr Hefford and Mr Lambeth managed to pull him out of the wreckage and get him ashore.
'BLOODY PLEASED' TO SEE THEM
HeliOtago chief pilot Graeme Gale flew one of three helicopters involved in the rescue mission.
Talking to media outside Southland Hospital today, Mr Gale said rescuers had been "bloody pleased to see [their colleagues]" walking on the beach.
"They were walking wounded, with a few injuries, but nothing life-threatening," he said.
Mr Gale described the crew as very experienced, well-equipped and carrying good gear. He said the men were particularly happy to be wearing cold water immersion suits, which had helped them survive the crash into the sea followed by a "short swim" to land.
He declined to describe the incident in further detail.
"Unfortunately here they've had a bit of an accident that's caused them to get a lift home."
Leading the search party was Sir Richard "Hannibal" Hayes, who located the crew almost immediately this morning after flying over the beach.
Mr Gale also praised the contributions of the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ) and the local fishing fleet, describing the collective rescue effort as "pretty special".
Although the rescued trio were in "good shape", they had been brought to Southland Hospital as a precaution.
"They've been through a bit of an ordeal, so we just need to give them a bit of space to recuperate now."
Mr Gale said it was an outcome few people had expected on hearing of the helicopter's disappearance on Monday night.
"It's an unbelievable result. I think there'll be a couple of drinks had tonight."
In a statement, a St John spokesman said it was very pleased and relieved the group was safe and well and getting medical treatment.
"We are providing support to the family of our paramedic and to his St John colleagues. His family feel a huge relief and is looking forward to being reunited with their husband and father later tonight. They thank everyone for their interest and well wishes and ask for you to respect their privacy at this time."
'WE WERE ALWAYS HOPEFUL'
Southern Lakes Helicopters operations manager Lloyd Matheson said after an “agonising”, sleepless night of waiting for news, staff let out a ecstatic roar when Sir Richard told them he had found the trio.
They heard the news from the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCC) at 11.45am today.
“There was an immediate sort of roar that went up when RCC rang up to say Richard had found them. We were always hopeful.”
Mr Matheson said Mr Hefford was unscathed, Mr Lambeth had suffered a “limb injury” and Mr Stevens was knocked unconscious on impact.
Mr Hefford and Mr Lambeth managed to pull Mr Stevens out of the wrecked helicopter and got him ashore. Mr Stevens had no recollection of what had happened. However, all had now spoken to their families by satellite phone.
Mr Matheson said the helicopter had crashed about 2km from shore. He assumed the trio had swum there, as there was no sign of the liferaft the helicopter was carrying.
There was no explanation yet as to what had happened, he said.
“That’s still to be determined - they can’t explain it either.”
“He was just trying to replicate what the aircraft was doing on the turn on a northerly approach to Enderby," Mr Matheson said.
The lack of communication with the helicopter in the moments before the crash remained a mystery, he said.
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. The aircraft had 90 minutes of fuel on board when it crashed.
The helicopter had left Te Anau yesterday and refuelled in Stewart Island before continuing south. The last transmission received from the aircraft was about two minutes before it was due to land.
All three men were highly experienced and highly trained, Mr Matheson said.
Mr Stevens had worked for the company for more than 20 years, while Mr Hefford had “vast experience” in New Zealand and overseas, including the past three years in Antarctica.
Mr Matheson said he might owe his good mate Lester a beer. Mr Matheson was supposed to be on yesterday's medevac mission, but due to a funeral he swapped places at the last minute.
"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," he told the New Zealand Herald earlier today.
He said he was "elated to hear they are safe, this is the best news, it is like 10 Christmases have come at once."
- additional reporting NZME