A mock crash was staged outside Lincoln High School recently to educate young people about driving. In the early hours of Boxing Day, 2016, Leeston’s Alex Brown survived a horrific car crash that claimed three young lives.
It was after midnight on Boxing Day and 14-year-old Alex Brown’s world was literally upside down.
He had been knocked out when the car he was in smashed into trees at 111km/h.
Now conscious, and 20min after the 1.30am crash, he was in the middle of a nightmare. It was dark but he could still make out some of the carnage in the upturned Nissan Tida.
He put two fingers on his best mate Cole Christensen-Hull’s neck. There was no pulse.
“I shut his eyes and gave him one last hug before I got out of the car and that was the last memory I have of him,” Alex, now 16, he recalled last week.
Also in the car were three other teenagers, Sam Drost and Lily Moore, both 15, who would lose their lives on that terrible night, and the unlicensed 14-year-old driver, who had survived. Alex had only met Sam and Lily that night.
Alex tried to get Lily out of the car, but was unsuccessful. Alex had suffered two broken hands and a fractured wrist.
He couldn’t see Sam. He kicked part of the windscreen out, and got the seriously injured driver (who has not been named publicly because of his age) halfway out of the car before trying to find help.
After walking for about a minute, he spotted a vehicle driving past and waved it down.
“To be honest, I didn’t know what was going on really. All the adrenaline and everything all just happened really fast and I just told the lady [who he waved down], ‘we’ve crashed, they’re not breathing, please get help’,’’ Alex said.
The teenagers had been out cruising and had run into trouble at a camping ground at Lake Ellesmere. Alex and Cole had spent some of Christmas Day together, hanging around, playing basketball and riding bikes. They were picked up at Southbridge School at about 12.30am and headed out to the lake.
Two “older men” camping at the site had confronted them because of their driving behaviour. Alex said Sam was punched and pushed into the lake. He and Cole had run away when the altercation happened and were picked up later by the other three.
A gut feeling told Alex to put his safety belt on. He was in the back seat. He normally did buckle up but on the way out to the lake he hadn’t worn it. No one else in the car was wearing seatbelts.
As they drove at speed south along Harts Rd, they discussed the mark on Sam’s head, caused Alex said, by being hit by one of the two men at the lake, and his wet clothes.
Cole then told the others in the car they were being chased. There were headlights behind them. They feared it was because of the altercation at the camping ground. The driver sped up.
Police would later say there was no evidence to support the theory they were being chased.
“They’re chasing us, they’re chasing us,” Alex recalls Cole saying.
Then disaster. The car failed to take a corner just before the junction with Southbridge-Sedgemere Rd, it hit a grass mound and became airborne for about 14m before hitting a row of trees.
Alex, knocked out, doesn’t recall the impact.
When he came to, his world had changed.
The families of the teenagers were also about to get the worst possible news.
The police knocked on the door of Alex’s home at 4.30am.
Recalls his mother Theresa Brown: “Your world comes crashing down . . . your heart just goes into your boots,” she said.
She was hoping police had got it wrong. Alex was supposed to have been staying at Cole’s house for the night.
“We drove to the hospital and it wasn’t wrong. It was right,” she said.
The months following the crash were terrible, said Alex. Attending his best friend Cole’s funeral was hardest.
“It was pretty tough when they were showing the photos, they showed a photo that I took of him on Christmas, so the last photo that was taken of him, yeah it was pretty tough,” he said.
The three service sheets from the funerals sit on a shelf in Alex’s room. He looks at them each day as he wakes up and before he goes to sleep.
“They’re always there with me, even though I didn’t know Sam and Lily they’re part of my life now, I feel like I know them,” he said.
Alex, who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, says after the crash he stayed at home a lot with close family and friends.
To help process what he had experienced, Alex tried counselling.
“I wasn’t the biggest fan of that so I stopped but the majority of it is mum really, kept to myself and talked to mum,” he said.
Going to the gym also helped.
“I’ve always been like a sporty kid but I started the gym mainly to keep in better shape and keep myself doing something, keep myself occupied,” he said.
He says Christmas is a difficult time.
“It’s supposed to be a happy time, but it’s not, it’s still happy but it’s not the best feeling anymore,” Alex said.
Now he’s 16, Alex has got his learner licence.
Learning to drive has been a “nerve-wracking” process for him and something he’s taking his time doing.
Looking back, Alex says he realises what a mistake they made by driving that night.
“I realise I made the right choice [wearing a seat belt] but sometimes you feel a little bit guilty that I was one of the two out of the five who survived but then just grateful to be honest,” he said.
Looking forward to the future, Alex is wanting to finish high school, get a job and maybe study at university.
For now though, Alex is advising other teenagers to be careful when it comes to driving.
“Be safe, always make sure the person driving has their full licence or if they’re on their learners, there’s someone with their full licence in the car,” he said.
•Two-hundred-and-fifty-two people have died on New Zealand roads so far this year, including five in Selwyn.