Friend describes frantic battle to save teen's life

Ashleigh Kumar was spending time with friends before going to university on the Sunshine Coast when the tragedy occurred. Photo / Supplied
Ashleigh Kumar was spending time with friends before going to university on the Sunshine Coast when the tragedy occurred. Photo / Supplied

A teenager has described how her friend's hand went limp and slipped from her grasp during a frantic 20-minute fight to save her from drowning.

Ashleigh Jai Kumar's friends battled in vain to free her after she became wedged face-down underneath a partially open irrigation gate at a popular swimming spot off Canterbury's Waimakariri River last Wednesday afternoon.

Miss Kumar, 18, whose Christchurch family home was badly damaged in the February earthquake, was spending time with friends before relocating to the Sunshine Coast to attend university.

Rachel Pickworth, 18, was among a group of friends who went swimming with Miss Kumar and was the first to realise something was seriously wrong when she disappeared below the surface.

It is believed Miss Kumar may have stumbled on a stone in the strong current running through the storage pond the group were swimming in, and she became pinned under the water.

Miss Kumar managed to grab her friend's hand as Miss Pickworth tried desperately to pull her free.

"I was just hysterical. I just couldn't even budge her. I didn't realise there was water going through [the gate] as well. I just couldn't feel it," Miss Pickworth said.

She felt her hand go limp in hers as she kept pulling.

"Then she let go. But we didn't give up, we kept on trying," Miss Pickworth said.

She said at first she thought nothing of her friend popping underneath the water.

"I thought she had ducked her head under. I thought that she was joking," she said.

Miss Pickworth realised something was not right when Miss Kumar didn't surface, and she screamed for help.

"One second she was there and then she wasn't. The police said someone saw her kind of stumble a little bit," Miss Pickworth said.

"I got over there very quick and started shouting straight away."

"[The onlookers] were just in shock. They stood there for a second then they came over very quick. We were all pulling. She just wouldn't move."

Miss Pickworth said at one stage there were about five people pulling Miss Kumar, while she was on the other side of the gate pushing her legs.

"I got up out of the water. You could see her legs on the other side. I was trying to push her legs through.

"A big guy, he must've been about 20, even he couldn't help pull her out," she said.

Miss Pickworth said it "seemed like an eternity" before emergency services arrived. The irrigation gate had to be opened to eventually free Miss Kumar's body.

Miss Pickworth said they had only found out about the swimming spot the day before from a friend. She said they had checked the area thoroughly before swimming and there were no warning signs.

Francis Kumar said her daughter loved the water and was a good swimmer. Her friends and family will remember her as outgoing, funny, creative and an animal lover.

Miss Kumar's death is being investigated by the coroner. Her funeral will be held on Thursday at the Aurora Centre at Burnside High School in Christchurch.

- NZ Herald

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