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The boy who gave his life for a dog

By Robyn Langwell

Ashley Atofu Patai-Vaisigano was a good boy who was never afraid to do the right thing. In the end it cost him his life.

The handsome, 15-year-old Hawke's Bay junior rep basketballer was spending a rare week away from his Napier family, working in Taupo with a friend, when he drowned in the Waikato River while trying to save a dog he thought was in distress.

Having just completed the fourth form at Taradale High School, the towering near-six-footer spent Christmas Day with family at the Pukemokimoki Marae at Maraenui before heading for Taupo.

He was to spend a week there with school friend Jordan Ngawaka, working cleaning trucks and painting.

The pair were cooling off after work in the shallows of the river at Cherry Island, Taupo, when they saw the unknown dog struggling in the flow after being attacked by a swan.

Ashley, not a strong swimmer, immediately swam 50 metres into the centre of the river to the dog's rescue and while trying to help it to shore got into difficulties himself and disappeared beneath the surface. His frantic friend dived time and again but could not find any sign of his mate.

The dog made the shore safely but Ashley's body was retrieved from deep water half an hour later after the Taupo Coastguard, local business people and Jordan had tried unsuccessfully to find him.

At home in Napier yesterday, Ashley's cousin, Junior Leota, spoke of the family's bewilderment at the loss of "such a fine young man - lying there looking so peaceful in his open coffin".

"He was special that boy. Something really different. He was a gifted sportsman, doing well at school and a talented artist.

"He went to church every Sunday, read his Bible every night, was involved in youth groups and was a really good role model.

"He was never afraid to do the right thing and was always doing things for family.

"About the only time he ever left the house was to go down to the park to practise his basketball."

The "baby" of a close-knit Maori/Samoan household, Ashley - "Ash" to his many friends - had three older brothers, an older sister and was the devoted uncle to his sister's seven-month-old daughter, Liberty.

"He was so full of potential, he could have done anything," Leota said.

"He dreamed of being a professional basketballer and that was entirely possible.

"He'd been in the school senior team since the third form and was a rep for several years.

"If he saw that dog in trouble he would just have to help. That's Ash. He did his best to make sure that everyone was looked after."

The teen was a devoted animal lover with his own small black dog, Zak, and a grey and white cat called Princess, who are still waiting anxiously for the return of their master.

Ashley's funeral service will be held tomorrow at the Napier Salvation Army Hall, where he worshipped every Sunday, followed by burial at the Western Hills Cemetery.

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