Dinghy capsize: Heroes of the harbour

By Amelia Wade

An embrace between rescuer Alan Godfrey and bereaved wife and mother Latu Paasi as the search at Mangere Bridge continued. Photo / Greg Bowker
An embrace between rescuer Alan Godfrey and bereaved wife and mother Latu Paasi as the search at Mangere Bridge continued. Photo / Greg Bowker

Some were fishing, others were with their families, a few were just doing their jobs - but several became heroes when they jumped into the chilly Manukau Harbour on Sunday afternoon to pull three children - So'saia Junior Paasi, 2, his brother, Komani, 10, and cousin Tom Paasi, 9 - from the water after their dinghy capsized near Mangere Bridge. Last night, the body of Tio Paasi, 7, was found under Mangere Bridge, and the search was continuing for his father So'saia Paasi, 45. The dinghy is believed to have sunk after striking a motorway bridge pile. It is not clear how many people went to the family's aid but the Herald has identified six of them.

1. THE FISHERMAN

Alan Godfrey was taking his 12-year-old son to the bridge to fish when he noticed a dinghy going underneath it.

"Then I looked up and saw a guy starting to get undressed and that the boat wasn't there any more, it was under the water.

"I heard all these people screaming, kids screaming and yelling for help. They were waving, trying to get everyone's attention, trying to get help."

The man Mr Godfrey saw getting undressed ran over to the edge of the footbridge, jumped in and started swimming over to where the dinghy had sunk.

The 39-year-old commercial carpet cleaner used his video camera to zoom in and find the people from the boat. He could see them struggling in the current, fighting to keep their heads above the water.

"I could see the other guy who was swimming over to them was struggling; I found out later he had a shoulder injury.

"I'm not a very good swimmer, but I thought I was strong enough. So I stripped down too. I took off my long johns, right down to my jocks, then I just jumped in."

His son didn't want him to. Before he ran over, he told him, "Please don't jump in".

"But I just had to," Mr Godfrey said.

He did not even feel how cold the water was.

"I just started swimming towards the little boy. I could see his face going under the water ... he kept drifting.

"I could hear everyone yelling, 'He's over there, he's over there, there he is' and I just kept swimming. When I got to him, I flipped him onto him back and pulled him to the bridge, back towards everyone.

2. DENNIS

"There were pylons under the bridge and I pulled him up onto one of them and started doing CPR with this other guy, Dennis."

For more than 10 minutes the pair tried to resuscitate So'saia Junior.

Mr Godfrey cradled the small 2-year-old in his arms to protect him from the sharp clam and oyster shells that were cutting him.

"We kept going and going. Water kept coming out of his mouth and nose, then some food and other stuff and more water, but we kept going.

"Then his eyes opened and fluttered a bit."

3. THE PARAMEDIC

The Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter landed on the old Mangere bridge, and when he learned that the 2-year-old was underneath, paramedic Karl Taylor jumped in the water, attached to a harness.

He swam under the bridge to where Mr Godfrey was holding So'saia Junior, put a tube around the boy and swam with him out into the harbour so the helicopter crew could winch them onto the bridge where ambulances were waiting.

"He was very unwell, he was breathing - probably because of the man that grabbed him - but he was unresponsive and very unwell," Mr Taylor said.

"[Alan] did a great job. He's still alive, I don't know what the prognosis is, but he wouldn't be alive at all if it wasn't for him I don't suspect."

4. THE FIREFIGHTER

Mangere firefighter John Beswick was taken to hospital after spending up to 30 minutes in his underwear and t-shirt helping those who leapt into the water to rescue the children.

Mr Beswick was lowered into the water to help the children hanging on to the pylons and the other rescuers.

He had mild hypothermia and grazes, but played down his part in the rescue.

5. SECOND FISHERMAN

Meanwhile, another fisherman had just arrived for an afternoon's fishing with his partner and daughter when he saw the dinghy going out.

People had been shouting at the occupants not to go out without lifejackets.

The man's sister said her brother was with several others who looked on horrified as the dinghy capsized.

"My brother did not hesitate and jumped into the water. He had his keys and wallet in his pockets but he just knew he had to get to those kids."

The man, who did not want to be identified, swam and managed to get to two of the children.

"He held them above the water and had to tread water until rescuers arrived."

The rescue helicopter winched him and the children to safety. He was taken to hospital and treated for hypothermia.

Later, he returned and had to break into his car, as his keys had disappeared into the harbour.

"My brother is amazing. He knew they were someone's children and he had to save them. It's tragic [that two people drowned] but it could have been much worse."

6. THE MOTHER

Utu Togafau also went into the water to do what she could to help. She said she could not ignore the cries for help.

"It was a lovely Sunday [until] we heard the kids yelling for help. I've got three kids myself so I understand. I just wanted to get those kids safe, as a mother."

The six heroes - Mr Godfrey, Dennis who helped Mr Godfrey perform CPR, firefighter John Beswick, paramedic Karl Taylor, Utu Togafau and the unnamed fisherman - were taken to Middlemore Hospital, where they were treated for hypothermia.

Mr Godfrey said one of the hardest things about the ordeal was that after he jumped into the water, he didn't see his son again until he got to the hospital.

Yesterday, he was resting in his Papatoetoe North home, his body aching from the swim and his body cut from the shells.

"I had to lock my legs in to hold us onto the pylon so they're pretty sore."

At times, his voice broke with emotion as he told the Herald about what he did.

He said he was just glad that So'saia Junior was alive and that he was able to help one of them.

"I'm sure anyone else would have done exactly the same thing, I don't know how anyone couldn't help. But there's still two we couldn't save.

"Afterwards, someone said to me, 'You're a hero' but I couldn't have done it without Dennis."

Yesterday he went back to the bridge to meet Latu Paasi, who was at the bridge waiting for her husband and son to be found. They hugged and she thanked him.

The police Counties Manukau East area commander, Inspector Jason Hewett, last night commended the actions of those who jumped into the water.

"It was incredibly courageous of them - the water was freezing cold, it was choppy, the current was running strongly.

"These people leapt into the water without any thoughts for themselves and saved lives.

"I'm certainly very grateful to them, and I know the family is, so they should certainly be very proud of themselves and their efforts."

- NZ Herald

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