The Kiwi king of bungy – fresh from 25th celebrations in Queenstown – is lucky to be alive after a high-speed head-on road smash.
AJ Hackett’s wife Amanda is hailing his quick swerve to avoid a full-frontal collision with an oncoming car – and says his instinctive reactions probably saved their lives and those of her three kids in the back seat.
“Oh my God, he is my f…ing hero. I’m just so grateful,” Amanda tells Mountain Scene, speaking publicly for the first time since last Thursday’s brush with death.
Two days prior Hackett was in Queenstown with bungy co-founder Henry van Asch for the big 25th birthday bash at their original Kawarau Bridge site – now he’s laid up in his Hawke’s Bay home with two broken ankles.
Hackett, who expects to be confined to a wheelchair for weeks, says he was only half an hour from his home when the oncoming car pulled suddenly into his lane, attempting to pass a truck.
“The truck’s already on me and I see these [other] bloody lights.
“I had less than a second to do something or we’re dead – I’ve had quite a few of these type of experiences, you act very fast, it’s just an instinctive thing,” Hackett says.
“All I can do is swing it hard to the left but then there’s a bank there so I pull it back to the right and try to create a gap between the bank and the car and the truck – which I managed to actually be able to do. [But] her car collected the front right side of ours so it was more of a head-on swipe.”
Hackett estimates the combined speed of his Toyota and the oncoming Ford Falcon was at least 190kmh: “Had I not pulled it to the left we’d all be dead, you can’t survive that.”
Hackett says he was left hanging upside down in his upturned car for about 20 minutes: “It was a very heavy level of pain.”
Amanda recalls both headlights bearing down on their car before impact: “I just remember thinking I can’t imagine all my babies could have survived this – for a mother there’s nothing worse.”
After the car flipped, Amanda says her children, 12, 10 and nine, quickly undid their seatbelts and climbed out through a window, shocked but unscathed.
“I panicked. My seatbelt was stuck, I managed to force it free.
“AJ was, like, ‘just stay here’ and then I got claustrophic and I was like, ‘no, I’ve got to get to my babies’, and I crawled underneath him out the windows.”
After accounting for her kids, Amanda says she focused on AJ: “He was upside down, sort of slumped on the wheel.
“It was pretty awful, he was stuck in there for some time.”
Amanda – who escaped with a bruised arm and a few scratches – says she’s angry they haven’t heard from the 35-year female driver of the other car.
“She never once apologised, asked who was in the car, nothing.”
Hackett adds: “Had I not done what I did she’d be dead. I thought she might have made an effort to see how the kids were, at least.”
It’s been a rollercoaster month for the Hackett bungy family – nine days before the 25th birthday celebrations, veteran Queenstown bungy manager Tony Middendorf was killed in a motorbike accident.
Hackett had been due to leave New Zealand last Sunday to visit several of his bungy sites including a huge new venture under construction in Sochi, Russia: “This sort of puts a big spanner in the works, but all the troops have been amazing.”
Hackett adds: “If I’m patient they’re saying they won’t need to operate on my foot and I’ll be able to walk in six weeks.
“I can only look at it positively ultimately – life has to go on. I’d rather be walking around normally but I’m looking at this as a chance to have a bit of reflection after 25 years,” he says.
Hackett, who famously bungy jumped off France’s Eiffel Tower in 1987 and started an adventure tourism sensation, is philosophical about his brush with death: “We’re really lucky someone watching us that night obviously thought we were worth hanging onto for a bit longer.”