A FORMER navy petty officer has told of the moment his parachute failed, leaving him to plunge 400ft to the ground.
Neil Clements plummeted when his chute collapsed from a freak gust of wind, leaving him with catastrophic injuries.
And his mum Lorelie has told of being stunned that when Neil awoke from his coma, he could speak Welsh.
Neil was training as a Royal Navy Parachute Instructor at the time of the accident. He needed 300 jumps to qualify, and was on his 289th jump when the accident happened.
He landed in the middle of a football match, Neil was airlifted by police helicopter to Exeter Hospital, before being transferred to Haslar Military Hospital’s Intensive Care Unit.
The fall left him in a coma with a broken neck and back, and severe damage to the back of his skull.
Doctors warned Neil’s family that he may never wake from the coma, and if he did he may be paralysed and have permanent brain damage.
Speaking 22 years after the accident, he is talking about what happened on the day after his 28th birthday for the first time.
‘The Royal Navy was my life for 14 years, so going from being ultra-fit to bed-bound felt as though I was in another person’s body.
‘It was a typical day as part of my training to be a parachute instructor, but unlike this jump my main parachute collapsed at 400ft. As I was flying too low I couldn’t open my reserve.
‘I hit the ground at an almighty speed, which is something that I don’t remember.
‘Spectators in the football field said I was swearing and wriggling around in the parachute ties, before hitting the ground at an almighty speed.
‘When I came around,I couldn’t move where my body was in plaster. I didn’t even know who my sister was.
‘The muscles in my upper-body were so weak that I had little use of my hands and arms. The front of my body was all plated so I struggled to stand and walk. I had to learn everything from scratch! How to stand, walk, eat…’
‘A year after the accident and I was finally allowed home,’ said Neil.
‘I was encouraged to engage in voluntary work, so I started volunteering at the Mary Rose Museum in Gosport, completing admin tasks, as well as a basic gardener at the Felicia Farm Animal Centre.’
Still in a wheelchair, Neil didn’t want his injuries to hold him back from returning to as much as a normal life as he could have.
Neil says while volunteering at the farm, and he had a surreal experience when the parachute display team were completing show jumps on the land for the public.
‘There I was in my wheelchair watching the guys complete these show jumps …five years of my life were spent doing those jumps, so to watch the jumps from my wheelchair was upsetting.’
As well as volunteer work, Neil completed and passed a GCSE in archeology to help build his memory skills.
Just over 10 years after the accident, Neil was given his driver’s licence back.
‘Everything takes a lot of effort, especially as I have very-little short-term memory and I tire easily. I’m never going to be able to walk unaided, but having the freedom to walk a few strides a time, and being able to drive, has been such a milestone. I feel almost human again.’
Neil’s mum Lorelie Jeans, she said: ‘I will never forget that knock on the door that literally stopped my heart.
‘It was Neil’s Commanding Officer from HMS Nelson and a chaplain. They advised that Neil had been involved in a severe accident and I was to go to the hospital immediately.’
Lorelie says Neil sustained a broken neck and back, a broken femur, a shattered pelvis; a broken right leg, swelling on the brain and a brain injury that now affects his short-term memory.
‘His injuries were heart-breaking – but miraculously and against all the odds, he somehow survived, which I will forever be grateful for.’
It took eight operations to save Neil’s right leg.
‘Neil survived because of the dedication of all the surgeons and nursing care he received, said Lorelie.
After spending six weeks in a coma, she said Neil finally awoke.
As expected, he could not remember what had happened or even recognise familiar family faces. Not only this, but he awoke with a sudden ability to speak the Welsh language.
‘Neil was taught basic Welsh in primary school, but it wasn’t a language that he knew as an adult.
‘Within minutes of waking from his coma, he was jibbering away in what sounded to be Welsh.
‘When we looked into what he was saying, it turned out that he was oddly asking for an ice cream!’
Neil was transferred to the Rehabilitation Unit at Headley Court for over a year, where he received specialised physio and cognitive therapies.
‘We did think that Neil may need residential care, but after 18 months he was determined to return to his own home,’ said Lorelie.
She added: ‘Neil copes so well for someone that was so critical. The effort that he puts into everyday life is so inspiring. He is ambitious, courageous and an inspiration for anyone who has a brain injury and thinks their life is now over.
‘His recovery wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for the help and support that Headway have given not just Neil, but all of us within the family.
‘They have been by our side every step of the 22-year journey we have all been through. What an incredible support network they offer. ‘