Inspector Darren Hopkins has reunited with the Westwood family who helped rescue him after his light plane caught fire and forced him to make an emergency landing on their Westwood farm.
Inspector Hopkins, who was seriously injured in a light plane crash in October, will be released from the Royal Hobart Hospital Burns Unit next week following an incredible recovery.
An emotional reunion organised by Northern Police District’s welfare fund took place on Friday, with Inspector Hopkins meeting his rescuers – the Kilby family: Toni, Chris, Emily, 15, Harry, 13, and Meg, 10.
Like most Sunday mornings, on October 21, Inspector Hopkins – an experienced pilot - got into his light aircraft and took a regular weekend flight around the Tamar River.
“An alarm sounded saying the battery was overcharging, which was the first I learned that something was wrong,” he said.
“Minutes after that, I saw flames coming through the passenger side floor and that engulfed the cabin to the point I couldn’t see out of the aircraft,” he said.
“I must admit I was pretty scared at that point as I was worried I was going to be burned inside the cockpit even before I landed or I was going to crash anyway as I couldn’t see where I was going.
“My hands and arms were burning at that point. I opened the cockpit door and I spotted the paddock which looked like a good spot to land.”
Inspector Hopkins somehow managed to make an emergency landing, missing the rams and horse jumps scattered across the paddock.
“It was about 70 seconds by the time I first spotted the fire to when I made the emergency landing. It was harrowing for sure,” he said.
“I touched down a couple of times – it wasn’t a great landing as I was coming down too fast, but at that point I didn’t care I just wanted to get out of the aircraft.
“The second time it bounced I just jumped out and rolled. It was just so hot, anything was better than being stuck in there.
“I rolled a bit on the grass, then the plane hit the fence and I rolled in under the plane.
“I knew I was badly hurt at that point and I tried to get my mobile phone to raise the alarm, but it was fully engulfed. I then made up to my mind to walk to the closest house I could find.
“On my way I found a cattle trough and I was calling out for help, I sat in that for a bit, but the fence electrified the cattle trough so I was getting shocks from that and it also had a few maggots in it from a dead animal.”
Toni – an emergency nurse at the Launceston General Hospital - and daughter Meg, 10, were in their backyard when they heard Inspector Hopkins’ calls for help. They raced to the scene and immediately doused Inspector Hopkins with cold water from the cattle trough.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” Toni said.
“I was in the garden and heard a noise and then a distinct yell for help. I turned around and saw black smoke and then I jumped in the car with Meg.
“I could see it was a plane and I could see Inspector Hopkins waving in the corner of the paddock yelling for help about 300 metres away. I called triple-0 and the ambulance and fire brigade were on the way before I even pulled up.
“The plane had taken out the electric fence and as we were dousing Inspector Hopkins using the water out of the trough, poor Meg got a zap. She was a really good helper. We doused him for half an hour of ice cold water before he got to hospital which was a big help.”
Toni instructed Inspector Hopkins to take off his shirt and trousers to help minimise his extensive burns.
“I got to keep my undies,” Inspector Hopkins laughed.
Young Harry, 13, also helped out by directing emergency services – who were on the scene within minutes.
“It was reassuring to have Toni being an emergency nurse and I followed her every direction. Meg was doing a great job keeping me wet and shaded too, and Harry helped direct the ambos and fire trucks in as well. It was a really quick response by the emergency services. I can’t really remember anything much after that,” Inspector Hopkins said.
Inspector Hopkins said it was fantastic to meet the people who helped save his life.
“I’d like to thank the Kilbys for all their assistance and I am just very lucky that Toni is an emergency nurse and was able to assist me at the scene until emergency services arrived,” he said.
“I’d also like to thank my mum Jan, my partner Michelle and Sergeant Mike Gillies, who have all been amazing, all my family and friends and people I don’t even know who have offered us support. I’d also like to thank the Tasmania Fire Service and Tasmania Police for their ongoing support. The fantastic medical and surgical teams have been nothing short of amazing.”
Toni agrees that Inspector Hopkins has made an incredible recovery.
“I just can’t believe how great he looks. We’ve been excited but nervous to see him as last time I saw him he was extensively burnt. I work in DEM as an emergency nurse, but this has been different because it happened at home,” she said.
“He’s really been in my thoughts so it’s just fantastic to be able to see him again under much better circumstances. Not many people who would have survived, it really is amazing.
“He’s family now – if someone lands in our paddock, they automatically become family, so he’s stuck with us now.”
Inspector Hopkins will leave the RHH Burns Unit next week, but is expected to take around 12-18 months to make a full recovery.
- Story supplied by Tasmania Police