It's nice to know you've saved someone: Officer

By Julia Proverbs

HERO: Constable Deane O'Connor (right) and the man he saved, Ashley Donkersley, at the Bay of Plenty Times Person of the Year ceremony.
HERO: Constable Deane O'Connor (right) and the man he saved, Ashley Donkersley, at the Bay of Plenty Times Person of the Year ceremony.

The Bay of Plenty Times Person of the Year 2013 is Tauranga policeman Deane O'Connor - and the heroic officer has today revealed the full story of the dramatic rescue and how he thought he too might die.

Mr O'Connor was named the award's winner at a function at the Bay of Plenty Times offices in Cameron Rd on Thursday night. He was accompanied by family and friends, and representatives of the Western Bay police.

The Tauranga constable saved the life of Ashley Donkersley after the van he was in crashed off Maungatapu Bridge after a collision on August 12 this year.

Three equal runners-up were also named and attended the event - John Bryant for his contribution to surf lifesaving, mainly in Mount Maunganui; Iris Thomas for her services to fundraising, sports events and safe cycling; and Stephen Pearson for helping feed hungry children in his own time via Facebook.

Mr O'Connor told the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend he was humbled by the award and, in an interview, revealed full details of that fateful night.

He was working a late shift when a call came up on the radio that there had been a collision at the bridge.

Driving along Turret Rd at the time, he was the first on the scene.

With the same sixth sense that urged him to run toward a crash near the bridge over a decade earlier, the first thing he did when he arrived was to take off his police vest.

Unbeknown to him, a van, containing two men, had plunged over the edge of the bridge after being in a collision with a car.

One of the men, Gregory Woledge, a 24-year-old electrician, did not survive but his colleague, Mr Donkersley, managed to bend open the van door and swim to the surface.

"At that stage I didn't know ... then people came up to me saying someone was in the water and someone had to do something," he said.

"They pointed out a guy in the water. I thought I heard him yelling out."

Going on dusk, Mr O'Connor couldn't see the van or even the surface of the water.

"I had to analyse where everything was. I didn't want to jump on the van. I knew the current was quite strong but I wasn't sure of the depth of water there ... all this is going through your head," he said.

As the torchlight shone on the man, he saw his head go under the water. For a split second, amid the chaos, everything went calm - and Mr O'Connor jumped.

"I remember someone taking my clothes. My heart was pumping in my stomach and I felt like I wanted to throw up. I did a sort of a bomb jump. I tried to go in so my feet would scoop me up. When I hit the water the pain was incredible. My whole head lit up in stars, white."

He laughs at his reluctance to jump, joking that there was probably a boot print on the middle of his back.

"I don't remember coming to the surface or the swim out to him. All I remember is getting to him and seeing him go under again and grabbing him, I'm pretty sure by the hair. I wrapped my legs around him because I wasn't sure if he would panic, and put his head on my chest. He didn't do a thing. I wasn't even sure if he was alive at that stage. He was completely limp."

Ten minutes passed before Mr Donkersley responded. And another 10 before he was strong enough to stay afloat on his own.

In the cold and the dark the two men trod water for what seemed like an eternity.

"I remember yelling out to the bridge: 'Where's the ... boat that's meant to be coming?' The chop was too much. It kept taking us under."

Then Mr O'Connor made a calculated decision. By the light of the moon peeping through the clouds, he steered them toward the strong current of the ski lane, which would return them to the shore.

"I knew if we went with the current to Welcome Bay we wouldn't make it because the cold would be more than we could handle if we were in there too long."

His plan worked. After 40 minutes in the 12-degree water, guided by the current and torchlights on the beach, they made it to shore.

"I remember the sand and stones being quite sharp. Two guys carried us up and I stood up and fell over. I stood up again and then I face planted the ground, probably because I couldn't feel anything. Then the shivers started and I couldn't stop."

When they got to hospital, Mr O'Connor's body temperature was 33 degrees and Mr Donkersley's was 32.

"Below 30 you're gone ... they obviously had concerns about us surviving because they red-lighted us back to the hospital."

It was, said Mr O'Connor, the first time he had stared death in the face.

"I suppose it was the first time that I've thought I may not make it out. I knew I could make it if my body would let me make it, but a number of times I thought we would not get out if we were in there any longer. It was too cold."

And he is certain if he had not taken a leap of faith off the bridge that night, Mr Donkersley would not be alive today.

"He'd already exhausted himself getting out of the van in the first place," he said.

"It's really nice to know that you've given someone else another chance at life."

England-born Donkersley, who at the time of the crash had only been living in New Zealand for 11 months, said he was indebted to Mr O'Connor.

"You don't expect someone to risk their own life when they don't even know you," he said.

Mr Donkersley and Mr Woledge were returning from a job in Whakatane when a car veered across the road.

Inquiries into exactly what happened were on-going.

Initially Mr Donkersely had no memory of the crash but, with counselling, he had been able to fill in most of the gaps.

Out of respect to Mr Woledge's family, he chose not to share the horrors of their descent into, and entrapment in, the water but talked openly about his rescue.

"I remember coming up and feeling like it was a dream and not real. I was obviously still dazed. I had been down there so long I was pretty knackered. I remember the current was really strong and I was getting dragged along," he said.

"I tried to swim to the bridge. I'm a pretty good swimmer, but I was getting taken pretty quickly. I was really far out."

Then he saw somebody jump off the bridge.

"I have no memory from when he jumped in to when he got there. He grabbed me and got me on my back. He needed to calm me down," said Mr Donkersley.

"He was really good about it. At the time I thought we were pretty safe ... he was joking about not having to go to the gym that night. He made me think everything was alright."

It was not until afterwards he realised just how close they had both come to losing their lives.

"The nurse said my body temperature was the lowest she'd ever seen," he said.

Mr O'Connor being awarded the Bay of Plenty Times Person of the Year 2013 was "well deserved".

"I'll always be grateful."

Mr O'Connor is humbled by the award.

"There are an awful lot of people in my job who would and could ... I just managed to be the first one there," he said.

"People ask me: 'Would you do it again?' I can't give an answer because I don't know how I would react. I would like to think that I would, but to try and do something that petrifies you ... you question your mortality when you're out there, and even afterwards."

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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