Death in the afternoon

By Andrew Koubaridis

The close-knit Muriwai community struggles to come to terms with the loss of a friend and surf club supporter

Friends and family of Adam Strange at a healing ceremony on Thursday at Muriwai. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Friends and family of Adam Strange at a healing ceremony on Thursday at Muriwai. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Script writing was one of Adam Strange's favourite pastimes. His work making advertisements took him around the world.

But even he would never have imagined the way his own tragic story would unfold.

When the 46-year-old came face to face with his killer - a great white shark that could have been up to 4m long - he was agonisingly close to his home and his loved ones.

He had left his wife Meg and two year old daughter Indigo at their Muriwai home while he set out at 12.30pm to swim out from Maori Bay to check his goggles before his third crack at the Rangitoto Harbour swim. Around him were many familiar sights. His home on the hill with a perfect view of the Tasman Sea, the fishermen, ever-present on the rocks, surfers, and lifeguards on the beach who were his friends.

Usually, the commercial film-maker - who last year won a short film prize in Berlin - would be on a surfboard or paddleboard. He liked the "big waves out west.

" But on Wednesday afternoon he wasn't alone.

Not long after he got in the water he swam past teenage surfer George Maoate and a friend, pausing briefly to chat to them.

Maoate said he told them he was training for an event and the younger man was impressed. "I just thought, 'wow, you're keen'."

Also nearby was another surfer, and unsurprisingly given the tight-knit community, she too knew both Strange and his wife.

And lurking beneath the waves were at least three great white sharks.

They were thought to have been feeding on a school of fish that had also attracted a large flock of birds to the water's surface.

It's impossible to know when Strange first knew he was in danger. One of the fishermen, Pio Mose, saw the shark approach him. "He yelled out 'shark' and all of a sudden there was blood everywhere."

Wounded and panicking, Strange waved his arms frantically to attract the attention of the fishermen and others in the water. It was unnecessary - his desperate cries for help and the water's sudden change of colour from blue green to a horrible crimson was proof something had gone tragically wrong.

Christian Rusmussen, standing on the rocks, also heard the initial yell of 'shark'. He and Mose watched in disbelief as Strange struggled with the shark and floated for a few minutes when the shark swam away.

He had his head up initially but could not last very long with the injury that had already been inflicted. Mose said it was at that point he called to Strange to swim towards the rocks.

But he didn't have the energy. And the worst was yet to come.

The fishermen, torn between wanting to help and not wanting to endanger their own lives, saw other sharks arrive. The predators were probably already there feeding - and experts say the blood in the water and the commotion would have sent them into a frenzy.

"He was attacked in a circle and this poor guy... in maybe five minutes he lost strength, so he just floated. We just stood there and the whole surroundings was crimson," Rusmussen told 3 News.

The shark dragged Strange further out to sea, at least 200m, and by this time he was clearly dead, his head now face down in the water.

On the beach, the reaction was immediate. About 150 schoolchildren visiting the beach fled the water while multiple 111 calls were made with an almost unbelievable claim: a man was being eaten by a shark.

A text messaging alert system drew a large number of surf lifesavers to the beach, while back in Auckland City two helicopters - the Auckland Westpac Rescue chopper and the police Eagle - scrambled into action.

There was some confusion. It seemed more likely someone had fallen on rocks and word of mouth had turned that accident into a shark attack; perhaps a swimmer had even been bitten. No one really expected a full-on attack.

A rescue pack full of first aid equipment was sent to the rocks,but it then emerged the victim was in the water and reality kicked in.

The first inflatable with lifesavers sped towards Strange and the sharks. They already had a clue as to the man's identity; he was known to be out there and a quick text around revealed no one had made contact with him.

Despite being in a rubber boat, the lifesavers rammed the shark and bashed it repeatedly with a paddles on the snout and head in an effort to make it release its victim. They were in no doubt Strange was dead but recognised their friend and were determined to retrieve his body for his family.

Lifeguard Joseph Mulgrew clubbed the shark with a paddle. "I don't want to make a big deal of it. I wasn't in the boat with the policeman, I was in the other one, the first boat. We had to get him off."

Danny Tenheuvel was in the surf club and co-ordinated the response, which has drawn widespread praise for speed and bravery in a situation so unusual it isn't included in training.

"The call came through on the radio about what the shark was doing and I was like 'what?' I just couldn't believe it."

He listened as fellow lifesavers "clubbed it with paddles" as he worked the phones and radios, speaking variously with police, the helicopters and the boats as they formulated a body recovery plan no one had ever attempted before.

A Rodney District police officer rushed to the beach with a police-issue M4 Bushmaster rifle and instructions to kill the shark if necessary. He boarded a second inflatable and was taken to where Strange's rescuers were already locked in a terrifying game of pursuit.

One shark remained and was continuing its assault on Strange. As the Eagle hovered above to pinpoint the location, the officer fired up to a dozen shots at the shark in a desperate attempt to get it to let go.

Incredible footage taken by the Westpac chopper shows the officer firing; the bullets hitting the water were visible from the beach.

Police sources told the Weekend Herald the Eagle crew saw three sharks attacking Strange, but only one that would not let go.

"When the cop was firing at the shark, at one stage it reared up out of the water at him. It leered over at the cop while it was still attacking ... he kept firing at it, the shark was thrashing its head around.

"While it was out of the water for those few seconds, the cop was able to put a couple of rounds into the back of its head. Then finally, it let go. It stopped, rolled over on to its back and then drifted off.

"We are pretty sure it was killed, it floated away."

The source said the officer made a split-second decision to shoot the shark.

Tenheuvel said there wasn't much they could do. "It was pretty aggressive. They could see the body but couldn't approach it." A quick scan of the log book reveals the true horror of what went on.

"[At] 1.30pm the guys left the beach ... they came in at 2.21pm ... So probably a good half-hour of the shark harassing the body."

He said the men on the boat only saw one shark and were stunned by its repeated attacks.

"They tried circling around the shark. Usually sharks don't like outboard motors because they buzz around and annoy them - but he was pretty determined. That was his dinner and he was pretty determined to keep it.

"The guys worked quite hard [to keep] the shark away from the body. It kept [letting go, but stayed] under the boat. It was always there."

Speaking about the blows lifesavers landed on the shark Tenheuvel said: "You do anything you can. They were not going to drive away. They were going to get him... They couldn't put their arms in because the shark was right there."

He said it was a hard decision initially to leave Strange but self-preservation was key. "They were pretty experienced guys - the first guys that got out there and knew not to do anything silly."

In his 32 years of lifeguard service, he said, Wednesday easily was the worst. "It was a pretty black day."

Before Strange was returned to shore, the news was broken to his wife as she sat with her friend in the cafe. They had heard there had been a shark attack and she'd tried to get in touch with him.

Tim Jago, chairman of the Muriwai Lifeguard Service, confirmed the horrible news and then carried out the grisly task of formally identifying the body, sparing Meg Strange that ordeal.

The body was taken to the Surf Club, and his wife went there too. Jago had alerted family and friends to be there for support and trauma counsellors were also called in.

The last time a fatal shark attack occurred in New Zealand, in Te Kaha in 1976, there was no Twitter or rolling internet updates. This time, information was being reported in real time, with news of the attack quickly spreading worldwide.

The speed of the coverage seemed to take police by surprise. The incident controller delayed the official media briefing until an elderly relative could be found and told the news, telling reporters it was 15 minutes out of their day but information that would have a life-long impact on those who knew Strange.

That night Muriwai rallied behind Meg Strange and little Indigo, who has yet to comprehend the loss of her father. Colleagues in the advertising world dealt with media while neighbours arrived with flowers and offers of help.

The next morning about 200 people - including Meg and Indigo - went to a healing ceremony.

Family members waded into the water, arms linked, while local iwi called out a karakia.

Friend Adam Stevens said Strange had touched countless lives.

"The plan today was to be out in the water surfing, not to be out paying tribute to a great father, good mate, good husband. Just a top person. Anyone he touched definitely knew a big-hearted man."

A friend, who asked not to be named, said there was tremendous sadness, "especially for his family and the difficulties they're going to face in the future. That is very widespread and heartfelt. Muriwai is not a small community anymore but it is a tight one ... I know Indigo and Meg will be looked after for the rest of the time they choose to live at Muriwai, just because of what's happened."

The funeral will be held on Monday afternoon at the Muriwai Surf Club, little more than a week after it opened.

Jago said Strange had played a key role in fundraising for the club and was proud of the finished product.

"Over the last few weekends he had been turning up to all our working bees. [The opening] was just a fantastic day and he knew he'd been a part of it. I think the community will look back and say 'thank you, Adam'."

- NZ Herald