What started as the happiest day of their lives – a wedding at a luxury golf resort overlooking the mountains – ended with the bride and groom in hospital after a helicopter crash. Sam Sherwood reports.
Mahdi Zougoub and Fay El Hanafy started to prepare for their big day around 8am.
The Christchurch couple had previously postponed their wedding several times – once due to the terrorist attacks on March 15, and then because of Covid-19.
A misty Saturday morning at the Terrace Downs Golf Resort, where the nuptials were taking place, gave way to a sunny day. Clear skies highlighted the scenic backdrop of the Canterbury countryside mountains.
* The helicopter suffered a “total loss of power” before crashing
* Wedding photographer who hates to fly recounts the moment the helicopter collapsed to the ground
* Newlyweds injured in helicopter crash delayed marriage after terrorist attack and Covid
* Bride and groom injured in ‘horrific’ Canterbury helicopter crash
Photographer Rachel Jordan was there early, capturing the dress, makeup and nerves before the wedding. Zougub and El Hanafy were so impressed with his award-winning portfolio that they moved the date again to ensure availability.
The morning went well, says Jordan, with “good energy in the air.” Everyone was in a “good mood”.
A few hours later, everything would change.
Shortly after 11:30 am, eight golfers made their way to the resort’s 10th hole.
The men, all from Christchurch, were spending a weekend of golf and were scheduled to spend the night at Castle Hill, about an hour’s drive away.
Due to the frost on the course, they had to start on the last nine. Halfway through, they stopped for lunch at the clubhouse, where preparations were underway for the resort’s first wedding since it reopened following the death of the former owner.
They then took the top nine in their two groups of four.
At that time, the wedding was taking place elsewhere on the course.
Rachel Jordan describes El Hanafy’s dress as “gorgeous couture style” with a long train and a long veil. She wore sparkly shoes and was “just beautiful”.
Zougub sported a new haircut from his good friend, Wasseim Alsati, who survived a bullet in the March 15 terror attack.
It was an intimate ceremony with about 20 people, Jordan says. The rest of the wedding party arrived shortly after for the much larger reception.
Jordan took family photos before rushing to the helicopter around 3 p.m.
The trio boarded the Robinson 44 helicopter owned by Wyndon Aviation, heading for a high peak.
Flying was “super terrifying” for Jordan, but she understood how important a mountain photo was to the couple.
“It’s something special that clients want, and when you’re a wedding photographer you kind of have to deal with it. “
Zougoub and El Hanafy, who had never flown in a helicopter before, were also nervous. The pilot told Jordan the weather was fine, but turbulence was possible.
“I literally said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t knock us down because I don’t like to fly.’
The helicopter took off and Jordan began to take pictures. About a minute into the flight – about 100 meters in the air – Jordan heard the engine stop.
She looked and saw the pilot “panic with his controls, then we were in free fall”.
“I was just shocked because it happened so fast, we weren’t saying anything. I look at her like, ‘Oh my God, I hope she gets that okay thing’.
Oamaru resident Margaret Munro was walking along the grass at nearby Quickenberry Lodge when she heard the helicopter take off. She saw him rise above the treetops and move west on her right.
“It seemed to sink lower and lower, and I thought it might want to land on the golf course. Then I realized that the rotors were just swinging freely.
“He continued to move straight ahead on his course to the west while losing altitude. Then he suddenly disappeared, and three seconds later I heard the thud. “
The golfers were on the 7th hole when the helicopter took off. Four of the golfers were on the par 5 green, while the other four descended the fairway.
They saw him fly above them going up the 8th fairway. Then the engine noise stopped and they could no longer see the helicopter.
They knew something was wrong and rushed to the scene. They found the crashed helicopter upright and essentially in one piece, except for the tail. The passengers and the pilot were still inside – in shock and seriously injured, but they were conscious.
Two of the golfers called emergency services while the others attended to the pilot and passengers.
Munro had walked to a nearby ridge and saw people standing near the helicopter. She initially thought the passengers made it out unharmed, but then heard screaming.
“It was horrible,” she recalls.
“I knew something was wrong at all”
Jordan, who passed out before the helicopter crashed, was “in total agony” when she woke up. She knew her back was broken. She gave one of the golfers her husband’s number.
“When I heard the tone of [his] voice, I knew something was really wrong, ”says Eric Jordan.
“I knew right away that she was probably very scared of what was going on.”
NEW ZEALAND RADIO
As two other people die in a Robinson helicopter crash, a US lawyer representing victims and families of the crash calls the helicopter “dangerous and out of airworthiness.” (Video first published in November 2016).
Zougoub called a relative as he was lying on the ground next to the wreckage and handed the phone to one of the golfers to explain what had happened.
Ronnie Ronalde, COO of the CPG Hotel Group which manages the property for the owner, rushed to the scene, along with a surgeon and other wedding guests.
“We just tried to take care of them, to make them as comfortable as possible,” said Ronalde.
Paramedics eventually arrived with Jordan, Zougoub and El Hanafy transported to Christchurch hospital by the Westpac rescue helicopter. The pilot was transported to hospital by ambulance.
The tally of injuries caused by the accident was considerable. Zougoub suffered a broken back, while El Hanafy also had his back, foot and legs broken.
The pilot sustained significant injuries, including broken bones and cuts.
Jordan has spine fractures, five rib fractures, a lung laceration, a broken sternum, a broken arm, and fractured feet and ankles.
When Eric Jordan arrived at the hospital the next evening with his 10-year-old son, he found his wife covered in tubes. She was hooked up to several machines, and her arm and both legs were in plaster.
A long process of rehabilitation awaits each of the group of four. Jordan will likely be in the hospital for about six weeks and fears he’ll never walk properly again.
“I’m on constant pain medication. I can move my legs, luckily, but I can’t feel my feet yet. I can’t move my feet.
Eric Jordan says El Hanafy’s parents visited him and his wife on Monday. The family are “lovely people,” he says.
“We have all formed a special bond together. They talked about keeping in close contact to keep everyone’s morale up. “
“Total power loss”
An investigation into the helicopter crash is ongoing. Wyndon Aviation said on Wednesday that although the investigation was in its early stages, it had been established that the helicopter’s engine suffered a “total loss of power shortly after take-off.”
“Simply put, the engine had stopped.
The company said that such an event was a “very rare event”.
“This accident will raise the profile of the Robinson helicopter even further, but it must be remembered that the R44’s powerhouse is supplied by a reputable third-party manufacturer.”
A coronial inquest in Queenstown this week learned that there had been 313 Robinson R44 crashes around the world, killing 176. The cause of the accident was unknown in almost 60% of the cases.
In 2016, TAIC added Robinson helicopters to its watchlist, leading organizations like DOC to ban their personnel from using them.
Almost a week after the helicopter crash, Eric Jordan reflects on how the family’s life has likely changed forever. The couple were both at the peak of their careers.
“Rachel and I both had our compasses pointed in a particular direction… and this event came out of nowhere like a freight train and absolutely turned our compass 180 degrees in the opposite direction. [It] made us completely rethink our future in a matter of days.
“I can say that what we hope to come out of is that as people we will grow from it, that we will become stronger and eventually we will heal and come out on the other side as best people. “