Sonny Fai's brother blames himself for beach tragedy

By Anna Leask

The brother of missing-presumed-drowned Warriors star Sonny Fai has told relatives he blames himself for the tragedy. Sonny disappeared after being swamped by heavy waves while rescuing 13-year-old sibling Gillesbie at Bethells Beach on Auckland's west coast last Sunday evening.

Sonny's sister Lalelei told the Herald on Sunday Gillesbie was finding it "really hard" to accept their brother's disappearance.

"He is blaming himself ... he wishes it was him who was swept away instead of Sonny. He thinks 'why did he have to come back for me?'."

Gillesbie was among relatives who maintained a beach-side vigil for Sonny this week.

As he sat with his mother on rocks overlooking the surf where Sonny was swept away, he said: "I just want to find my brother."

Lalelei said moments before being swept away, Sonny let go of Gillesbie's hand and told him to head for shore.

"He said, 'I'll find my own way home'. He said, 'Here's your chance to swim out of this, you've got to go, you've got to get home to mum and dad, you've got to let me go'."

Gillesbie made it to shore and thought Sonny was close behind. But when he turned around he saw the 20-year-old drifting out to sea.

"They almost made it," said Lalelei.

Sonny had borrowed Lalelei's van late in the afternoon to show relatives visiting from Australia how the Warriors trained at Bethells.

The group also included an aunt and uncle from Auckland and their children, Gillesbie and Sonny's girlfriend, 2007 Miss Samoa New Zealand contestant Jenna Frost.

Sonny started by taking his cousins for a run around the dunes. It was the first time Jenna had watched him train.

"He never really asked me to, but he did that day," she said. "I am so glad I was there. He came down from the dunes and took off his shirt, dumped his bag beside me and said he was going for a swim.

"I couldn't see him but about 10 minutes later I heard everyone yelling for help. I thought they were joking because they had been trying to throw me in the water all day so I stayed where I was. But they kept screaming."

Jenna said she ran over and asked one of Sonny's cousins what was happening.

"He said Sonny and Gillesbie were caught in a rip. I took off my watch and threw it on the sand - Sonny gave it to me.

"I ran into the water but I couldn't see him. His cousin had to pull me back, he said it was too dangerous but at the time I didn't care, I just wanted to find Sonny. I was just screaming and screaming. I scratched one of the cousin's faces, I was telling him to get out the way and let me go."

Gillesbie also had to be held back from returning to the water.

He told Lalelei they had been swimming in waist-high water when all of a sudden they could not feel the bottom. They realised they were caught in a rip and were being pulled out to sea.

"He was with another cousin and Sonny told them to stick together and hold hands and go where the rip was taking them until they could swim out," Lalelei said. "Sonny and the others all made it back to shore when he saw Gillesbie struggling.

"He called out to Gillesbie but he went under. He was exhausted. Sonny just went back for him. He told Sonny 'let me go, I can't swim any more', but Sonny told him to be strong."

The pair were swept north and Sonny held on tight to Gillesbie.

"The last time Gillesbie saw him, Sonny was swimming right behind him."

Jenna and one of Sonny's aunts ran back to the van and drove about 12km up Bethells Rd until they had cellphone coverage and called 111.

Sonny's family have not left the beach since he went missing and are refusing to give up hope he might be found alive.

Fans have helped family, including Rosita Vai, who won the second series of New Zealand Idol, to scour the beach and have left tributes on a makeshift message board beside the Fai family's base.

"There is someone here 24 hours a day," said Lalelei. "The police helicopter is still patrolling and the Warriors have paid for a helicopter to go over every now and then.

"It's amazing how much support there is for Sonny, we thought this would just affect us but he's touched so many people.

"We have a church service for him every night at 6pm at home [in Mangere] and then we come back out here. We are not holding any memorial service for him because that would mean we have given up hope ..."

Gillesbie has collected most of Sonny's possessions and has them in his bedroom.

"He has the shirt Sonny took off before he went into the water and he won't let anyone near Sonny's stuff," said Lalelei. "A cousin asked for a pair of his shoes to wear and Gillesbie said 'no, they have to be here for when Sonny comes home'."

Jenna, the only girl Sonny took home to meet his parents, said it was hard to imagine life without him.

"We talked about getting married ... he was easygoing and so fun. He just had a big heart. He would do anything for you, anything you asked. And he had a cheeky smile, that's what I loved."

Aside from league, Sonny loved volleyball and had a talent for art and graphics.

"He was really interested in tattoos," said Jenna. "He did both of mine ... the one on my ankle has his name in it.

"I have to be strong. If Sonny was here that's what he would be doing. I cried a lot on Monday, but I knew if he was here he would be screaming at me, 'why are you giving up? Never give up', so I am not giving up on him."

- Herald on Sunday

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