Pool death brings call for action

By Cherie Howie, Kate Shuttleworth

Scene of a drowning in a swimming pool yesterday in Mount Eden Rd. Photo / Doug Sherring
Scene of a drowning in a swimming pool yesterday in Mount Eden Rd. Photo / Doug Sherring

The discovery of a woman's body in the swimming pool of an elegant apartment complex has alarmed water safety campaigners and invigorated work programmes to prevent more fatalities.

Neighbours found the body yesterday morning - she is believed to have spent the previous evening drinking by the pool with friends.

If the coroner confirms her death was by drowning, it will be the 21st such death since the summer holiday season began on Christmas Eve.

The woman, believed to be in her 50s, is a resident at Marino Gardens, a heritage-protected apartment building just off Mt Eden Rd.

A police crime squad closed off the apartment complex and questioned residents but, after several hours, Detective Senior Sergeant Hywel Jones said there appeared to be no suspicious circumstances.

Residents, visibly distressed, said Marino Gardens was a tight-knit community.

One nearby resident said he had heard a noisy party in the early hours of Saturday - unusual in the quiet neighbourhood.

Another said he had been woken between 1am and 3am. "I heard a guy screaming really loudly and swearing," he said.

Water Safety NZ chief executive Matt Claridge expressed concern that alcohol might have been a factor in the death.

"Judgment and ability to perform are impaired when people are drinking," he said. "If they are in or near water they are physically impaired and sometimes can't cope."

The drowning - one of 21 since Christmas Eve - also has former Waitakere City mayor Bob Harvey's blood boiling.

Last year, 123 people lost their lives in New Zealand waters - double the drowning death rate of Australia or the UK. Last year's toll was 36 higher than in 2010 and the worst on record since 2003. While the road toll has been steadily dropping, New Zealand's drowning toll has been holding steady or rising.

"The bodies are stacking up," Harvey said. "This country has really got to take a serious look at what we're doing in the water. [We are] going back to 100 years ago when drowning was [known as] the New Zealand death. We've got almost the highest drowning statistics in the world now, with our population."

Harvey is now chairman of Waterfront Auckland and NZ Surf Lifesaving. He is organising a workshop involving all 37 organisations involved in water safety, which he hopes will take place in Auckland in March or April.

An independent review of swim and survive programmes by Wellington sports administrator Alan Isaac was due then and Harvey wanted all parties to get together and "somehow make sense of the tragedies involved".

He doesn't believe increased funding for learn to swim initiatives is the silver bullet: "There's never enough funding, but I think most of these people can swim ... I think you'll just find people are taking risks."

However, Matt Claridge said it would make a huge difference if all children were taught basic swim survival skills. "Half of all drownings in New Zealand occur when a person has no intention of being in the water. That's where swimming skills are incredibly important. We don't need every child to be able to swim beautifully like Danyon Loader, but to be able to float and move in the water."

He said Water Safety NZ relied heavily on Lotteries' and community grants and sponsorship to meet its $5 million budget. Government funding totalled only $180,000 of the budget.

"What we really need is $28 million to get all kids learning to swim," he said.

"Drowning is suffocation. It's an absolutely heinous form of death. It's not like a road crash, you don't see a horrific scene - but it is horrific."

Beacon can be lifesaver

Before returning to the sea, Barry Bethune will take his lifejacket to a saddler and ask for a small, secure pocket to be sewn inside.

In that pocket, he will put an emergency locator beacon.

It's too late for Bethune's 23-year-old son Shaun and his best mate, Lindsay Cullen, 59. They died after a summer fishing outing went wrong in Foveaux Strait. But Bethune hopes others will learn from the mistakes he made as skipper of the ill-fated boat trip. The pair are among 21 people who have lost their lives in the water since Christmas Eve.

Bethune, twin brother of activist Pete Bethune, always thought he was a responsible skipper - the former commercial fisherman had his boatmaster and VHF radio tickets; insisted on lifejackets being worn; and stowed an emergency locator beacon on his 7m launch.

But Bethune's decision not to attach the beacon to himself proved fatal when the launch, carrying three men and two women, was hit by a rogue wave and capsized.

"I always thought I might need it for an engine failure, but people need to be aware it can be more catastrophic than that. If you capsize, you have to be able to contact people."

Everyone on board the launch survived the capsize, but repeated attempts by Barry Bethune to dive down to the cabin and retrieve the beacon were fruitless - and they were forced to swim towards two islands. Shaun Bethune and Cullen died before anyone even knew they were in trouble. Their deaths have been included in a tragic drowning toll that has touched every part of the country from the deep south to the far north.

In New Plymouth, Lionel Ogilvy went to the gym every day and considered himself a strong swimmer - but he drowned trying to save his 10-year-old son from a rip at Fitzroy Beach.

His brother Tristin urged others to think first in an emergency. "Grab something to hang on to, to float. There's just been too many of these deaths lately."

Further up the North Island, Kiribati-born and raised Alesana Seneka was also a good swimmer.

Seneka, 41, who lived in Auckland with his wife Seilona, drowned while retrieving cray pots just beyond the breakers at Papamoa Beach on January 3. Family members pulled him from the surf, but he could not be revived.

His drowning was a shock, said his brother Fale. "He could swim. We used to go swimming together as kids, but it's probably different in New Zealand."

Also in the Bay of Plenty, Russell Stewart wasn't wearing a lifejacket when he drowned a few metres from the shore in Omokoroa Harbour on Christmas Eve. His body was found floating face down after the harbourmaster noticed an empty dinghy drifting in the harbour.

The 69-year-old former fisherman never wore a lifejacket, his widow Donna said, though he always made sure his four sons wore them.

She reckoned her husband may have suffered heart trouble and fallen from his dinghy while cleaning his launch. "He was only three, four or five strokes [from safety] and he was an excellent swimmer."

- Herald on Sunday

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