A poignant ceremony for Willie and Prickles

Two Far North men who lost their lives trying to save others were remembered at a poignant ceremony on the Karikari Peninsula on Friday.

Department of Conservation ranger William Macrae and helicopter pilot John "Prickles" de Ridder died when their helicopter crashed into Karikari Bay during a search and rescue mission on the night of November 30, 2011. They had been flying reconnaissance over a major fire when they were tasked with finding five people trapped between the advancing flames and the sea. The five potential victims eventually managed to get into a dinghy and were picked up by a fishing boat.

More than 70 people gathered at Maraewhiti Point, on the Karikari Peninsula, the closest point on land to the crash site, on Friday to mark the first anniversary of the men's deaths, and more importantly to celebrate their lives.

Among them were family members who had travelled the length of the country, the entire staff of DOC's Kaitaia office, senior firefighters from Rural Fire and the Fire Service's Muriwhenua area office, the owner of Salt Air and members of Karikari hapu Te Whanau Moana and Te Rorohuri.

They drove over rough roads to a cluster of homes which had miraculously escaped the fire, then gathered on the beach for a blessing by Archdeacon Timoti Flavell and a moving welcome by Robert Brown, one of the five people the men had been trying to rescue that fateful night.

"I want to thank everyone for coming here to remember these two great men, who gave their lives trying to help others," Mr Brown said.

Mr Macrae's brother, Alan Macrae, recalled the conditions of a year earlier, when a similarly powerful wind was blowing but in the opposite direction, carrying thick clouds of smoke out over the bay.

"There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about William, but at the same time I think of all the people who've put their arms out and helped us," he said.

Family members completed the ceremony by throwing wreaths into the sea from the rocks and from a boat over the crash site. They gathered at Mr Macrae's and Jenny Larson's home at Awanui that evening to share a meal and their memories.

No one has ever been charged with lighting the November 30 fire, one of 14 suspicious blazes on the peninsula over 18 months, despite a lengthy police inquiry. That inquiry was hampered by what some have described as a cone of silence that protected the arsonist.

Principal rural fire officer Myles Taylor said it was disappointing that the culprit had not been identified, but the authority was committed to doing what it could to prevent future tragedies.

Both Mr Macrae and Mr de Ridder posthumously received Far North District Council Citizen's Awards in recognition of their service to the district by way of conservation and firefighting, and in many other areas.

- Northland Age

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