Learning to fly again after a serious crash

In 2005, Michael Gibbons was in a helicopter crash. He survived but his two best friends died. It was two years before he walked again but he tells Ailin Quinlan it thaught him to ’dance in the rain’.

Learning to fly again after a serious crash

He woke up in hospital with broken bones in every part of his body. Michael Gibbons had a fractured skull and a severe brain injury. His back and sternum were broken, his left arm and one cheekbone were smashed, one of his lungs had collapsed and he had a broken toe.

Then he contracted MRSA.

But the 30-year-old businessman was lucky to be alive – the helicopter carrying him and his two best friends was now a heap of scrap metal on the Galway mountainside into which it had just crashed. And his friends were dead.

It was July 8, 2005, the peak of the Celtic Tiger boom, when singletons Damien Bergin (32) and Michael Gibbons (30), along with Mark Reilly, a father-of-three in his 40s, travelled in a Robinson R44 helicopter piloted by Bergin, from Galway to the Tall Ships Races in Waterford to celebrate Mark’s birthday.

“We were intoxicated with the Celtic Tiger economy and were enjoying life,” recalls Michael, who was then in pharmaceutical sales. The following morning, the helicopter took off from Waterford for the return trip.

About 40 minutes into the journey, they encountered problems.“I remember flying low, close to Slieve Aughty mountain, near Derrybrien Mountain, outside Galway. As they increased their altitude to fly over the mountain, the clouds became increasingly dense, and as the helicopter flew higher, it quickly became enveloped in a thick blanket of fog.

“We were up in the air and we were literally blind. We didn’t know which way was left, right, or up - or where we were. Damien decided to turn the helicopter and go back the way we’d come. He only had a split second to make the decision on which way to go, and he decided to turn right.

“I heard a bang and the helicopter started going out of control. We began to descend very quickly.We could see the trees crashing against the windscreen as we went down.”

At this stage, the helicopter was less than 10 minutes from Galway airport where the trio had been scheduled to land.

“We hit the ground with an unmerciful thump. There was a huge bang and we came to a sudden stop. I felt a huge shock coming up from my toes through my legs and up my lower back. I now know that this was because my back had broken.”

Slipping in and out of consciousness, and with Damien slumped against him, Michael looked at Mark who was in the back seat. Somehow he knew his old friend was dead.

“Damien was in a very bad way but he rang the emergency services, gave them a general location and got us out of there.”

Mark was pronounced dead on arrival at hospital. Five hours later, Damien too was pronounced dead. Michael was put in a full body cast, and remained in hospital for almost two weeks. “If you read the air accident report, the probability of surviving a crash from that altitude and that speed is very unlikely,” he says.

His injuries were horrific and one night as he lay in agony in his hospital bed, Michael vowed that he would recover - and compiled a mental bucket list of the things he was going to do. “I swore I’d regain my health, travel to all the places in the world I’d always wanted to see, get a Masters Degree and write a book about the experience.”

After two weeks he was released from hospital. His mother Carmel moved into his home for two months to care for him. She and Michael’s sisters, Norrie and Karen looked after him around the clock. However, it took two long years of physiotherapy and rehabilitation before the young businessman was adequately mobile again.

Michael eventually recovered and dealt with the fall-out of the accident, successfully settling a raft of legal and compensation issues.

Then two years after the accident, the Gibbons family suffered another setback. Michael’s sister Karen gave birth to a daughter, but sadly, little Ciara was born without lower limbs. “Ciara learned to walk with prostheses and is still receiving treatment in the United States,” he says.

All of the proceeds from his book Survivor, which has just been published, will be donated towards Ciara’s treatment in Sarasota, Florida. In the meantime, the Galwayman has fulfilled his bucket list vow and utterly transformed his life.

Two years after the crash he moved to New York and studied for a Masters Degree in Organisational Psychology at Columbia University, engaged in much charity work, both in New York and Miami and travelled extensively, visiting some 30 countries around the globe. He returned to Ireland in early 2012 and wrote his book with the help of an old college friend, Christy O’Connor.

One day another friend, now a successful accountant, advised him to consider investing in property. Using some of the money he had received as compensation for the accident, Michael purchased Fort Eyre House on Maunsell’s Road in Galway in August 2013 and went into property development, financing the transformation of the old convent and bell-tower into a residential block.

He later bought a site beside it and recently secured planning permission to add another seven apartments to the complex. He is in discussions on another site to extend the development further.

Now 39, he’s in good health, although his back injury means that sitting for prolonged periods is extremely uncomfortable.

“What I’ve learned from all of this is that life is not about waiting for the storm to pass, but rather learning how to dance in the rain.”

Survivor by Michael Gibbons is published by Londubh. Priced at €14.99.

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