Real Life

Hit by a train & I survived!

A freak railway accident changed this young Kiwi's life foreve

Nicole Vregdenhill can’t remember the exact moment that the huge train smashed into her family’s car at the level crossing. The horrific head injuries she suffered in the Southland accident robbed her of that terrifying memory as well as the last few hours of her mother Karen’s life.

Nicole has no recall of the fog or foliage around the crossing that crash investigators believe may have made it hard to see the oncoming train, nor does she remember the moment the car is thought to have accidentally bunny-hopped onto the line. That day should have been one of happy memories for Nicole, of Invercargill. At the time of the crash, the promising student was on her way to receive an award at a school prize-giving, but she now only recalls getting ready in the morning.

Karen, who was driving Nicole and her little sister to school, was killed instantly, while Nicole (then 13) suffered horrific injuries. Incredibly, her sister (then 10) survived with just a few cuts and bruises. Nicole’s head trauma from the 2002 accident was so severe, she spent three weeks hanging on to life by a thread. Then came long months of rehabilitation, excruciating headaches and fatigue.

But she gained strength from looking at photos of her mum, vowing to get back to the sports she loved. “It was a very hard thing to go through,” says Nicole, who still has balance problems. “I lost my sense of identity. It took a long time to get it back.”

Now 21, Nicole is finally ready to take another big step in her life – to raise awareness of rail safety and help prevent more tragedy. She has joined the Chris Cairns Foundation, teaming up with the former Black Cap cricketer to educate Kiwis about the dangers of railway level crossings during Rail Safety Week, which runs from 22 to 29 August. Chris knows Nicole’s pain at losing her mum because his sister Louise died in a rail crash in 1993. over the past 18 years, 106 people, including Karen, have been killed in level-crossing accidents involving cars.

Nicole says some of the memories of her mum, who had just celebrated her 40th birthday, have faded but she’ll never forget her nurturing and caring nature. “She’s still a big part of my life.”

Although they didn’t get to the school prize-giving that day, Nicole hopes her mum knows how well she’s done since then. She’s in her final year of a degree in outdoor education and adventure recreation, and looking forward to a career helping others take on challenges. She also wants to get the message out about staying safe around railways. “At the end of the day, accidents happen – but I hope people will be more aware and cautious,” she says. “It only takes a second to make a life-changing decision.”

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