I needed all my first aid skills when our helicopter crashed in the middle of nowhere: Ray Mears on why everyone should learn to be lifesavers
21:45 GMT, 28 July 2012
Ray Mears is on his back, on the floor, pretending to be unconscious. A young woman stands over the 6ft BBC presenter and starts to manipulate his arms and then his legs.
‘Please sir, slap my face,’ she says, gently moving his left arm so it is stretched out in front of him, and folding his right over his body so the back of his hand rests on his cheek. ‘Bend my leg, and roll me over,’ she continues. In a fluid movement she rolls his body on to his left side.
It is a surreal scene – and everyone giggles. But the purpose of the activity is utterly serious. The woman, Stephanie, 23, is a volunteer for St John Ambulance and the bizarre – but undoubtedly memorable – sentences are her unique way of teaching people how to put someone in the recovery position safely.
Life-saver: Survival specialist Ray Mears found himself calling on his first-aid skills after the helicopter he was travelling in crashed
Of course, first aid never involves actually slapping faces but ‘having a handy phrase that sticks in your mind helps you work under pressure,’ says Stephanie. ‘And it’s far more likely to come to you if it’s funny or just a bit weird.’
This basic manoeuvre forms a cornerstone of first-aid training: it keeps an unconscious casualty in a stable position, prevents their tongue from blocking their airway and can prevent fluids from choking them.
Survival expert Ray, who has practised first aid since he was a teenager, is having a refresher lesson, courtesy of three St John Ambulance youth workers.
The aim of the RISE project – the name stands for respect, inspire, support and empower – is to teach teenagers first-aid skills so they can go on to train other young people. Ray, 48, is here today in his role as host of the St John Ambulance First Aid Awards 2012.
The lives of others: Ray Mears practises with teenagers from St John Ambulance in Eastbourne
Mail on Sunday readers still have a week left to nominate their first-aid heroes and the winners will be honoured at the Lancaster London Hotel in November. The awards, launched last year in association with The Mail on Sunday, seek to highlight those instances where first aid meant the difference between life and death.
Evidence suggests that up to 150,000 people die each year in circumstances where first aid could have helped. Almost 900 people a year choke to death, while 29,000 die from heart attacks. It is a subject Ray is passionate about. He says: ‘Just knowing the basics can save a life.’
He recalls the dramatic moment seven years ago when he was involved in a helicopter crash. If it had not been for his first-aid skills, the outcome could have been far more serious. He was filming Ray Mears Bushcraft for the BBC, exploring the dramatic landscape of Wyoming, USA.
Ray, the director, the cameraman and the pilot were flying over a ridge to capture a shot of man riding a horse. But, heading downwind, the pilot had insufficient power to maintain height.
‘About a minute before the collision, I
remember thinking, “We’re very low – this isn’t right,” ’ says Ray.
‘And then everything turned upside down.’
In safe hands: Ray Mears may be skilled in the wild but after enduring a helicopter accident, he is happy to receive refresher first-aid training from young St John Ambulance volunteers
The helicopter hit the ground. ‘I
went into the brace position and just hoped for the best,’ recalls Ray.
‘I remember hearing the deafening sound of metal crunching, then
everything went eerily silent.
'I clambered out of a small opening thinking I was the only survivor, but I soon heard the cameraman shout, “I’m alive but my legs are broken” from inside the helicopter.’
Amazingly, Ray had suffered only severe bruising so ran to his colleague’s aid. ‘He was in a bad way. His leg was so broken it formed a right-angle out to the side,’ says Ray.
Using a penknife, he cut the safety harness that was keeping the cameraman in the helicopter and, thanks to the adrenaline pumping around his body, he lifted the 6ft 2in man to safety.
‘He felt light as a feather – that strange moment has always stuck with me,’ adds Ray.
Once a safe distance from the carnage, Ray checked for other injuries and did his best to ensure that the cameraman was comfortable.
‘First aid can just be about being there for someone, which can prevent them going into shock,’ he says. ‘I slowly moved the leg into a straighter position and made a makeshift splint out of gaffer tape and a camping mat.’
It soon became apparent that every passenger had survived. Once everyone was away from the helicopter, Ray and the director noted down a list of the injuries.
‘I wanted to make sure that when I rang the emergency services, I wouldn’t forget anything in a panic,’ says Ray. ‘I wanted paramedics to be prepared because we came down in the middle of nowhere. I know most people aren’t going to be in a helicopter crash but the same rules apply in everyday situations.’
Indeed, the winners of the special SJA Guy Evans Award at last year’s ceremony – voted for by readers of The Mail on Sunday – were teenagers Michael Purvis and James Mavin, who came to the rescue of a man who had collapsed on the street. Realising he was not breathing, the pair gave him cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Paramedics said the boys’ actions ultimately saved the man’s life.
Ray says: ‘To those who do not know basic first aid, think of your friends and family – you never know when you are going to be that difference, that reason why a person doesn’t die. It just makes sense.’