Against all odds
He's not Superman but Malcolm Semmens knows a thing or two about survival.
Depending on who you ask, Malcolm is many things.
Small businessman. Spiderman tragic. Helicopter crash survivor.... The descriptions are endless.
A self-confessed nerd at heart, Malcolm doesn’t let life’s challenges stop him from giving every customer who walks through his little comic book store, Kersplatt! Comics and Collectables, a beaming smile and a friendly “G’day”.
Deep conversations about the complexities of plotlines in Batman, Superman or the mysterious Red Hood inevitably follow, with their endless legions of fans always up for a chat with Malcolm.
He listens, he waits and then he offers an astute observation. It’s a characteristic that seems almost fitting for someone who’s spent more than half his life in a wheelchair, gaining a unique brand of experience and wisdom.
See, the Westcourt man knows a thing or two about overcoming adversity.
He walked away with barely a scratch after falling 1200ft in a helicopter 20 years ago – only to become a T7 level paraplegic three months after that ordeal in a motorbike accident.
“Don’t take anything for granted, there’s a cliché,’’ he quips.
“There’s nothing that I’ve really learnt from all of this, that I didn’t really know beforehand I suppose.
“It’s part of my daily life now. Any lessons that I’ve learnt over that time is stuff that’s ingrained, so I forget that there used to be another way.”
Indeed, there was. As a happy-go-lucky teen sporting a mane of hair, life was pretty good for the-then 17 year old who was looking forward to finishing grade 12 at Cairns State High School in 1992.
“I was one of those people who had no real future idea of where they were going,’’ Malcolm says.
“I pretty much went with whatever came.’’
A mid-year trip to New Zealand’s South Island was supposed to have been a way to cap off the end of Malcolm’s schooling years, with a helicopter ride over Fox Glacier one of its must-see attractions.
“It was the first time I had ever been out of Australia,’’ he recalls.
Malcolm and five of his friends piled into the small Aerospatiale Squirrel that took them up Fox Glacier.
“We were all looking out the window and taking photos, and I remember looking up and seeing this plane heading right towards us, a Cessna.
“I thought it had gone under us for a second, until the big impact and then the helicopter just started shuddering like mad and the doors blew out on the side.’
’The collision took the life of New Zealand pilot Christopher David Rowland after the wing of his Cessna slammed into the cockpit of the Squirrel.
“There was fibreglass flying around the cabin and it got really, really windy,’’ Malcolm recalls.
“We just started spinning and heading towards the ground.”
In the midst of all the chaos, which left helicopter pilot Steve Gibb with two broken legs after being crushed by the impact, Malcolm says he had no time to think about anything – even death.
“I was in complete disbelief. Everything just happened too fast to be scared. I think the only injury I had was the bruise across my stomach where I forgot to take my seatbelt off before I tried to jump out.’’
Bruised, battered and visibly shaken, Malcolm and the rest of his group stumbled out of the wreckage before being picked up by a rescue helicopter later that day.
Upon returning to Cairns amid a small media storm, Malcolm soon returned to his quiet life in Westcourt before tragedy reared its ugly head.
“My sister and I were riding our motorbikes up to Port Douglas, and a guy came around on the wrong side of the road.
“I had to lay the bike down and slide across the road. I would have been fine, except there was a rocky culvert on the side of the road.
“I actually landed straight into that and the bike landed straight on top of me.’’
But unlike the helicopter crash, this time there would be no super-human ending for the kid from Cairns.
Months spent in a drug-induced haze followed by arduous rehabilitation at Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane made little difference to his fate.
Malcolm had crushed three of his vertebrae, making him a T7 level complete paraplegic and changing his life forever.
“I remember seeing my parents standing above my bed and asking if they could straighten out my legs, because my legs felt really uncomfortable. And they looked at me and said ‘They are straight’, and that’s when I realised that something was wrong,’’ he admits.
“My family’s been really close and supportive, and they don’t tend to let me feel sorry for myself.
“I’m sure I wouldn’t be here today if I didn’t have such great parents.’’
While adjusting to life in a wheelchair was initially hard to accept for Malcolm, it rekindled his love for comic books and the ability to immerse himself in a world with no limits or boundaries. A place where imagination triumphed and reality shied away.
“I just needed stuff to do and my sister went over to America as well and got me some subscriptions to Spiderman titles so that got me into it a lot more.
“I’m a bit arty, so I started painting pet portraits and doing a bit of digital art for people, like designing logos. That pretty much kept me earning money for a while and then my girlfriend Amy decided that we should open a business.”
Combining his passion for comic books with a solid business proposal, Malcolm started Kersplatt! Comics and Collectables with girlfriend Amy Milligan at the end of May this year.
It’s a place that has brought much excitement to Cairns’ resident population of comic book geeks, who finally have a place to call their own. They will probably never know that the man sitting in the wheelchair across from them has lived through two death-defying ordeals, more suited to the adventures of their favourite superhero fighting to save the world from imminent destruction.
Not that Malcolm minds. He’s living the dream.
“I do have a good job. I’ve got a beautiful girlfriend who I love immensely and my life’s actually pretty good at the moment,’’ he surmises.
“You’re the only one who has the power to make your life good or bad.’’
And when he puts it like that, maybe even this cranky Batman fan might just lighten up.
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Malcolm in his shop, Kersplatt! Comics.