On June 12 last year, Fay El Hanafy and Mahdi Zougub exchanged vows and said ‘I do’ to each other in front of their family and closest friends, against a stunning alpine backdrop in Mid Canterbury.
Minutes later, their guests watched in horror as the helicopter carrying the newlyweds for a photo shoot plunged to the ground, leaving them and others on board fighting for their lives.
Today, a year after that accident, Fay El Hanafy shares her story – her journey from absolute hell and back and what got her through her darkest and most painful days.
Fay El Hanafy walks into a cafe in Christchurch.
If you had told her a year ago that she would do this, she wouldn’t have believed you – it just didn’t seem possible.
When the engine stopped dead in the Robinson R44 helicopter and it plunged to the ground at Terrace Downs Resort, El Hanafy suffered serious injuries, including multiple spinal fractures and a broken heel.
For weeks, she did not imagine moving again.
For months, she couldn’t imagine getting out of her hospital bed.
Second, she never imagined living without her wheelchair.
So walking unaided just 12 months after the brutal injuries is something she can’t believe.
“I thought it was almost impossible to walk again.
“My back…my heel was broken into little pieces…when people see me they almost forget what I’ve been through, they don’t know it’s still so hard.
“I try to live normally, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy, it’s a fight I have to fight every day.”
When the helicopter crashed into Zougub, wedding photographer Rachel Jordan and pilot Lynda Harrap also suffered serious back and leg injuries.
El Hanafy, 24, and Zougub, 25, were hospitalized for two months – first together in a trauma ward, then in specialist wards where their individual injuries were treated.
When they were released, they lived apart so their families could help them recover, rehabilitate, undergo ongoing surgeries and countless medical appointments.
Eventually, they were well enough to live together, but their first year of marriage was far from marital bliss.
El Hanafy spoke to the Herald on Sunday just two weeks after her fifth surgery – another to help strengthen her heel, which was effectively obliterated in the accident.
There will be more operations in the future, the priority is her spine, but surgeons say the injuries are still too fresh and she needs to heal more before she can do the necessary work.
“It definitely had a big impact on my physical and mental health.
“Life is so different for us now – it’s almost like I’ve changed countries and learned to adapt to everything.
“After the accident, our lives changed and we both had to learn to adapt not only to our individual injuries, but also to our new life as a couple – a person trying to live with their injuries is difficult enough, but we’re both trying to learn to overcome those challenges, it’s been really, really difficult for us.”
El Hanafy said his memories of the accident came “in flashes” and were still traumatic and triggering.
“My husband remembers it, I don’t… I just remember the beginning, the helicopter started making noise, something was really wrong.
“That’s when I thought ‘oh nothing bad is going to happen, it’s my wedding day‘, and I was trying to reassure myself.
“The next minute I was lying on the ground and passing out…that’s when I realized we had crashed.”
El Hanafy said his family and friends witnessed the crash and ran to the scene.
A surgeon who was golfing nearby also ran over to help.
She remembers yelling at Zugub and being terrified because she couldn’t see him, he wasn’t next to her.
“When I woke up he wasn’t next to me, I didn’t know what was going on, I didn’t know where he was, if he was alive.”
The couple, Jordan and Harrap were taken to hospital.
“The first two weeks were miserable, I was still in pain and wasn’t awake most of the time, I didn’t really know what was going on.
“I hadn’t realized how bad the accident was… as I became more awake I was more aware of what was happening, I couldn’t believe it – I still can’t believe it. “
El Hanafy feels better every week, every month – but everyday life is a challenge.
She is working again as a community counselor for the Department of Ethnic Communities, but has a second full-time job to manage her injuries and her recovery, including up to four physiotherapy sessions a week, hydrotherapy and other treatments.
“I’m still in pain most of the day and most of the night,” she said.
“But I’m learning to live with it, I’m just amazed that I can walk unaided now and really grateful.
“I really never thought I would get this far, when I was in hospital I was barely moving.
“The time has gone by very quickly – it certainly doesn’t feel like a whole year, I think because of all the challenges we’ve had and because most of the time we’ve been focused on rehabilitation, which is pretty much nearly a full-time job.”
El Hanafy said her real wedding was “beautiful” but she will not be celebrating today’s anniversary.
“It was a beautiful day, it was really a happy day and we didn’t expect anything bad to happen.
“It’s hard to believe and it breaks my heart when I think about it…everyone was so devastated when it happened and they didn’t know if we would make it or not.” :
The couple had been forced to postpone their big day twice – because of the March 15 terrorist attack and then the Covid-19 pandemic.
They wanted the day to be perfect, and it almost was.
“What happened is very unfortunate and we continue to live with it,” El Hanafy said.
“We won’t be celebrating our anniversary…to us, it doesn’t look like an anniversary.
“I got married on my brother’s birthday, so we’re going to celebrate that, and we’re going to celebrate that we’re both together and that we’ve both made it.”
El Hanafy and Zougub plan to redo their marriage when they are both well enough to enjoy it.
They want to make new memories and start their married life over without the pain and fear of the initial event.
“We will when we are both stronger and more capable physically and mentally,” El Hanafy said.
“But we’re not there yet. The crash we were in was huge and we’re still adjusting to it – we really want to celebrate but we don’t want to suffer.
“I hope I can wear my wedding dress again and have that photoshoot.”
El Hanafy said his relationship with Zougub has grown stronger and they have been the biggest support for each other since the crash.
“He’s been great, he’s been doing his best to comfort me,” she said.
“I wouldn’t have made it without my husband, I really can’t imagine my life without him – it’s been a really tough road.”
The couple are determined to have the life they’ve always dreamed of – traveling and doing “normal couple things”.
They know it may take years for something close to normal to settle in their lives – but they are getting stronger every day, both within themselves and together.
“I always like to think that it made me a stronger woman – I’ve been through so many challenges in my life, but when that accident happened it broke me because all of a sudden I don’t didn’t think I was strong.
“But now I reflect on how far I’ve come with my injuries and it has given me confidence.
“My GP tells me I’m a superwoman for all the challenges I face and for being strong – but I like to think of myself as an iron woman because I’m strong and have patches and stalks in my body.”
The Civil Aviation Authority confirmed last year that a “total loss of engine power” had occurred in flight shortly after takeoff.
The cause of this power loss was still under investigation.
The helicopter was operated by Wyndon Aviation.
The company did not respond to multiple messages from the Herald on Sunday.
Pilot Lynda Harrap also declined to comment on the accident.
Photographer Rachel Jordan spent months in hospital in Christchurch and Auckland before returning to her Far North home to continue her recovery.