Fisherman owes his life to rescue service

Jason Lake will never forget the day in 2001 he was winched to safety after his fishing boat overturned off Bellambi.

"We'd been swimming for an hour and 20 minutes after we got thrown out of our boat. My mate was blowing bubbles, he'd had enough and I thought 'I'm not gonna die like this'," Mr Lake said yesterday.

The Oak Flats truck driver said he owed his life to the rescue chopper that plucked him from the ocean.

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And he said plans to rob Wollongong of its existing aeromedical service were "crazy".

"It's a lifeline to our region. If it wasn't there that day, I wouldn't be here."

Mr Lake was fishing with friends off Bellambi in 2001 when a rogue wave struck.

"Three of us were in a small boat fishing when we were hit by the wave that snapped our anchor rope," the father-of-two said.

"Then there was a second rogue wave that tipped us over, we got two in a row. We were turfed out. We swam for an hour and 20 minutes before the Westpac Lifesaver helicopter picked us up."

"We would have drowned without the chopper for sure."

In 2006, Canadian firm CHC was awarded the multimillion-dollar NSW Ambulance Service contract to provide choppers at Wollongong, Sydney and Orange for 10 years.

The move sparked outrage among the unsuccessful Australian bidders, including NRMA Careflight and Westpac Life Saver Rescue, which argued they would be better equipped to continue NSW air ambulance services than a foreign-owned company.

But most in the community moved on, happy to have a 24-7 service.

Mr Lake, for one, doesn't want to see it axed.

"Now I'm a motorcycle rider. When you are out on a country road and you have a bad accident you certainly want to know the chopper is in the region. You need that. We need it here there's no doubt about it."

The state-of-the-art Augusta Westland 139 helicopter, supplied under contract by CHC Helicopters, is used for crew winch operations with a doctor and paramedic, search and rescue, and inter-hospital intensive care unit transfers.

The fast response time was highlighted after an accident in December 2009 in which a fuel tanker collided head-on with three cars on the Princes Highway at East Lynne, 20 kilometres north of Batemans Bay.

The tanker driver died in the crash, along with two girls, aged 13 and 11. Their parents sustained critical injuries.

Andrew Ryan, station manager of the helicopter base at Illawarra Regional Airport, recounted the incident to the Mercury earlier this year.

"We transported the father and the mother to Concord Hospital and to St George Hospital," he said.

"The humbling thing about that is the fact that within a very short space of time we were able to go down to Batemans Bay, pick them up at the roadside, manage their injuries, take over the care of their major functions and get them to a major trauma centre that could look after their burns.

"All that happened within the space of 1½ or two hours."

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