Tragic end repeated 13 times

By Bevan Hurley, André Hueber

Raymond Saunders' widow, Jenny Saunders at his service in Te Awamutu. Photo / Herald on Sunday
Raymond Saunders' widow, Jenny Saunders at his service in Te Awamutu. Photo / Herald on Sunday

Thirteen people, dead. Thirteen families, bereft. Friends, workmates, witnesses, emergency services - all affected.

This is the toll that drowning has taken on New Zealand in the fortnight that the nation has been on holiday.

The dead ranged from the super-fit to the overconfident, from 72 years to 22 months. They died in rivers and swimming pools across the country, or boating and diving off our long coastline.

Some of the drownings are unlikely to ever be fully explained, most were avoidable, all were disasters for the families left behind.

The youngest victim, toddler Hannah Thomsen, had been swimming at her parents' pool in Marton, 36km southeast of Wanganui, on January 2.

Her mother Mary-Anne Thomsen is said to have turned her back for a "split-second" to feed her infant brother before turning back to see her floating in the water.

Hannah's half-sister, Caitlyn, 12, dived in and pulled Hannah from the water.

Asked to explain what happened, Caitlyn said: "She wasn't breathing and there was food around her mouth. Her lips and eyelids were purple. Mary-Anne was giving her mouth-to-mouth and compressions." An ambulance arrived in a few minutes and paramedics tried to resuscitate her.

Her father Les said: "It's been a shit of a week. It was just a pure and simple accident."

Hannah was the second of four people to drown that day.

In Ruatoki, near Whakatane, 3-year-old Te Kotahitanga Kopae-Apiata was swimming with relatives in the Ohinemataroa River when he was swept away.

The toddler, a relation of war hero Willie Apiata, VC, was known for being "fearless, cheeky and full of energy".

That afternoon milk tanker driver Inglis Henry, 72, drowned while diving for mussels with friends off a boat near Thames.

His daughter Carol Henry said the grandfather of five still had a zest for life.

"He didn't want to sit back and watch - he was an action man and could do the work of six teenagers," she said.

About an hour later, Hamilton man Wayne Belmont, 42, drowned diving for paua off Waikato's coast. His family said he was a confident swimmer.

A few days earlier on December 30, respected Maori academic Mark Laws, 52, had been out for a morning swim at Te Kaha, on the East Coast.

His wife Karina told how she watched in horror as he bobbed on the surface of the water before disappearing beneath the surface.

"It looked like he looked at me and floated back down.

"I was calling to Mark to come to me. I said to myself Tangaroa [the ocean] has taken your life, I don't want him to keep you, I want you to come back."

Laws said the couple had discussed how they wanted to share their last breath together. "That night I brought him home and didn't sleep, I stayed up and talked to him. I said 'we're supposed to share our last breath together'."

Yesterday in Te Awamutu, around 300 people crammed into the Alexandra House Chapel for the funeral of New Year's Eve drowning victim Raymond Saunders, 68.

Mourners overflowed outside as eulogies were given by Saunders' grandchildren, children and siblings.

As his body was put into a hearse, a haka was performed.

Campers at Otautu Bay in the Coromandel had tried to save Saunders after his boat capsized.

In Nelson, the 16-year-old who died after playing a game with friends to see who could hold their breath longest underwater was also farewelled. Sam Goodenough died five days after being pulled unconscious from a 1.21m-deep swimming pool.

Retired midwife Yuhua Cao, 65, drowned in unexplained circumstances while walking along the waterfront at Henderson on Wednesday.

Cao's body was found fully clothed by rowers.

Cao was terrified of the water, her daughter Xiao Ping Liu said. "Our whole family is scared of the water," Liu said. "No one can swim."

Former TVNZ executive Roger Dickinson, 56, was on Tairua beach with family members on January 3 before having a suspected heart attack and drowning.

His wife Val Dickinson said Dickinson had been suffering from a long-term illness.

"We think he must have stood on the water's edge, lost his balance on the incline and wasn't strong enough to get up. The waves must have pulled him out."

Anare Nayacatoga, 27, was a confident swimmer who died after getting cramp off the south coast of Wellington.

His body arrived back in Fiji yesterday for a burial, accompanied by New Zealand Sevens stars Tomasi Cama and Lote Raikabula.

Joseph Tufoua, 20, fell from Claudelands Bridge in Hamilton on December 30 and was found five days later.

His sister Gloria said he was a talented rugby player who had recently found work at a panel beaters in Frankton.

She said: "We have no idea what happened. We are still searching for answers."

On Friday, Southland farmer Sidney Harris, 84, drowned in a sewage pond apparently trying to save one of his lambs.

Then, yesterday, a man was killed during a safety drill on a cruise ship in Lyttelton Harbour - taking the toll to 13 in almost as many days.

- Herald on Sunday

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