MUM Lee Lethbridge didn’t hold back when she was asked by police where she thought her missing son was. She told them her worst fears.
“The police officer actually asked us what do we think, because we said it’s not Sam. My wife actually said, ‘I think he’s in a ditch or something, bleeding out’,” husband Tony Lethbridge recalled.
The awful reality was just that. Sam Lethbridge, 17, was laying in his wrecked car 20 metres down a bank off the Pacific Highway at Crangan Bay, south of Newcastle.
He was crushed, bleeding, injured and in pain — and if help didn’t come soon, he was dead.
It was early on Sunday, January 14 when the teenager dropped off a mate in Wyoming on the New South Wales Central Coast. He was due to meet his girlfriend at midday and texted her that he would see her then.
Driving with his P plates, Sam was heading to his destination when he crashed off the road and plunged down the bank.
He was pinned under the dashboard unable to move. He could do nothing except wait and hope someone would rescue him.
Those people were his parents. They knew at once something was wrong. Sam wasn’t the sort of person to just run off, or not make contact.
In an interview with Channel 9’s A Current Affair, the family talk about the desperate search and Sam reveals his fight for survival as he lay trapped for an astonishing 29 hours.
“He would never go without contacting someone, we knew there was something wrong,” Mrs Lethbridge said.
Both parents fired off text messages to him and tried to ring. There was no answer.
From their Lake Macquarie home they hatched a plan. Initially they searched for hours along the Pacific Highway that is so well known for fatal crashes.
The police visited and that was when they told him their fears he was bleeding to death in a ditch.
“I don’t know if she’s psychic, or whatever, but that’s exactly what was happening,” Mr Lethbridge told A Current Affair.
It was his memories of the crashes that happened in the area that he couldn’t shake.
“An accident happened there about five years ago … It stuck in my mind … I thought, ‘I can’t leave him out there without looking,” he said in the days after Sam’s rescue.
“His mates were telling us he was a bit tired when he dropped his mate off on the central coast so [a crash] was the only thing we could think of.”
He decided the only way they could find Sam was from the air — so he wasted no time in hiring a helicopter company to search the bushland they believed the car might be in.
It was a decision and a father’s gut instinct that saved Sam’s life. “We just weren’t going to give up.”
Pilot Lee Mitchell and Sam’s uncle Michael Lethbridge were only in the air for eight minutes when they saw the crashed car.
It was heavily damaged and there was debris strewn around a large area.
Michael Lethbridge didn’t know whether he would find his nephew alive or dead.
The first indication he was alive was the reaction from his uncle when he reached the car. He looked back at the chopper and jumped with joy.
Calls were made to paramedics and to an anxious mum and dad.
“He’s alive. So that was just a magic moment,” Tony said.
“He’d been there all night. No one could see him from the road, no one at all,” NSW Ambulance superintendent Jeff Atkins told the media.
When rescuers found him they had to peel the roof back and cut the seats out to free him. The car was so seriously damaged after plunging through bushes as it rolled that Mr Lethbridge couldn’t move inside because he was pinned under the dash.
“He was trapped extensively in the car from the waist down and was fully conscious through the whole ordeal,” Mr Atkins said.
Once freed, he was carried up the bank on a stretcher to a waiting ambulance.
“It was a very extensive rescue, very difficult access, difficult extrication of the patient, [we’re] very lucky the young patient is still alive.”
Sam was taken to John Hunter Hospital in Newcastle with serious injuries including his thigh
sticking out of his skin by 12cm.
It would take six operations and a year-long rehabilitation but he is alive and on the road to a full recovery.