A father’s hunch in hiring a helicopter to search for his missing son may have saved the teen's life when the chopper spied the 17-year-old's wrecked car on the side of the road.
Tony Lethbridge, of New South Wales, Australia, said he feared the worst when his son, Samuel, did not return home Sunday morning after a Saturday night out with friends in the nearby city of Newcastle.
He reported his son as a missing person to police and then contacted a helicopter service to help him in the search, Sky News reported.
“When I saw the police, they thought he’d run away. I said ‘that’s not Samuel.’ When he doesn’t show up or phone, something’s seriously wrong,” Lethbridge told the Associated Press.
He added: "I understand that they've got a lot to do and they hear this every day, but I took matters into my own hands and was thinking all night that tomorrow morning, I'm just going to get a helicopter and go looking for him because we're running out of time — it's been long enough."
The search paid off. Samuel’s car was spotted among the trees off the road about 12 miles from the family's home in Lake Macquarie.
The teenager was cut out from the wreck some 30 hours after the crash. He suffered multiple fractures and remains in serious condition, officials said.
“[He’s] very lucky to be alive,” said Jeff Atkins, inspector with the New South Wales Ambulance, according to Sky News.
Lethbridge got in touch with Lee Mitchell, pilot and part-owner of Skyline Aviation Group at Lake Macquarie, for help.
“He came in looking anxious and somewhat fatigued and said he needed a helicopter bad,” Mitchell told reporters. “He just said: 'I've got [$797] on me, will that be enough?' and we said: 'Yes, it would.’”
Mitchell said they usually charged a rate of $956 per hour, but the company gave Lethbridge a discount after he explained his plight.
Samuel’s uncle Michael Lethbridge joined Mitchell on board the helicopter for the search. The car was spotted within 15 minutes of taking off.
"It was fairly easy to spot from the air. It would've been near impossible to see from the road because it was well below the road level," Mitchell said.
The teen’s uncle was the first to reach the car. He said he was terrified of what he would find and feared the worst.
"I really didn't want to go. I was scared of what I'd find. As I got closer I seen Sam's head move," Michael Lethbridge said. "I went from being terrified to ecstatic in a couple of seconds."
Mitchell said everyone was overwhelmed by the “great outcome.”
“We’ve done a lot of search and rescue stuff in previous years and they don’t always turn out so favorably,” he said.
While Australians rarely pay for search and rescue operations, Tony Lethbridge, who works in a mail sorting room of the national postal service, has no complaints.
"It's priceless. If it's [$797] I've got to pay to get his life, I'm OK with that," the father said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.