Anna Leask is senior police reporter for the New Zealand Herald.

Young lives swept away

Canadian tourists Connor Hayes and Joanna Lam had bright futures - until tragedy struck on the Haast Pass

A tribute to Connor Hayes and Joanna Lam left by the Haast community on the Haast Pass, where the couple were swept off the road. Photo / Christine Cornege
A tribute to Connor Hayes and Joanna Lam left by the Haast community on the Haast Pass, where the couple were swept off the road. Photo / Christine Cornege

They never saw it coming. Even if they had, they could never have survived it.

On September 10, Canadian couple Connor Hayes, 25 and Joanna Lam, 24, left the small South Island village of Haast.

It was early evening and they had at least two hours' driving until they would stop for the night, probably in Wanaka or Queenstown. They headed south in their campervan, the whole world ahead of them.

Just 59km later, the couple were dead, swept to their deaths by a massive landslide. But no one would know for another six days.

Joanna and Connor started dating about two years ago when they rented apartments in the same complex in Ottawa.

She was pursuing her career as a radiographer, after graduating from McMaster University in Ontario with a degree in medical radiation science. He had a maths degree from Queens University, also in Ontario, but dreamed of joining the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Joanna had this year been hired on a six-month contract to work at Nelson Hospital. Connor was accepted into the Mounties.

With a slight wait until he could start training, he decided to join Joanna in New Zealand to help her settle.

They'd travelled before, and it's fair to say Joanna was an expert at navigating the world. She'd taught English to at-risk youth in Costa Rica and spent time in South Korea, South America, Europe and Cuba.

New Zealand should have been a piece of cake.

Joanna Lam and Connor Hayes.
Joanna Lam and Connor Hayes.

Joanna and Connor arrived in New Zealand from Peru after a trip around South America on September 2, hired a campervan in Nelson and hit the road. Their plan was to see the wild West Coast before heading back north in time for Joanna to start her new job on the September 16.

On September 10, a Tuesday, they took a guided tour of the Fox Glacier and then drove 120km north to Haast. It's a sleepy little coastal town, home to just 200 people.

They stopped briefly before carrying on south towards the Haast Pass.

Carving through the Aspiring National Park the road is winding but wide and there are few sharp corners - a relatively easy drive. As you drive, glimpses of the sparkling turquoise Haast River catch your eye through the lush green native bush lining the tarsealed road and the snow-capped mountains tower above.

It would have been very different on September 10. A storm was raging, the rain was torrential and the wind howling. The flooded river was violently swift.

Neither the pass nor the road to it was closed. It can be a dangerous road with a risk of slips in bad weather, but so can many others in New Zealand.

The couple drove on, over the Gates of Haast, a bridge about half an hour from the township, past the Diana Falls, which flow down a rock face to the right of the road and down a gentle stretch.

Then, in a flash, it was all over. The slip, thousands of tonnes of gravel hurtling downhill at a speed no one can quite calculate, took everything in its path - including the campervan.

Haast mechanic, Eamond Johnston, shakes his head when he talks about what happened.

"There have been lots of road closures over the years, that type of slip isn't new. But never in my memory has anyone been caught in one like that. It's very much that the holes in the cheese lined up. It was a freak incident," he tells the Weekend Herald over his welder, as he races to repair a tourist's car so they can get out of town before the road closes.

Since September 10, the pass has been closed at night for safety. If you're not out by 6pm, you're staying.

The road was closed after a second and much bigger slip that night, about 30 seconds' drive before the one that killed Joanna and Connor. Road workers are still on the site, trying to clear the debris and repair the road.

"It must have been quite an event up there, quite localised," Johnston says. "It was rainy here but it was just another day on the West Coast, we wouldn't have known any different. I really feel for those buggers."

Fast-forward six days.

Joanna had not turned up for work and there was no sign of her or Connor in Nelson. Her boss reported her missing, and Senior Constable Robin Manera in Haast was alerted.

He confirmed the couple were seen at Fox Glacier and then in Haast by locals later that day. Then, no trace.

The slip that closed the Haast Pass Highway, a few hundred metres away from the one that took the lives of Hayes and Lam. Photo / Christine Cornege
The slip that closed the Haast Pass Highway, a few hundred metres away from the one that took the lives of Hayes and Lam. Photo / Christine Cornege

"I went up the pass that morning for a look, and spoke to the helicopter pilot up there assisting at the other slip. I told him I was looking for a vehicle in the river and he said straight away he'd seen the remains of a vehicle down the road. But because no one had been reported missing when he saw it, he thought it must have been there for some time," Manera recalls, adding that other cars and even a grader had been buried under gravel after similar slips.

"He flew me straight to it. We then found the mattress and things out of a campervan downstream and realised it was probably the vehicle that we were looking for. We were able to find the VIN number of the vehicle that corresponded to the missing van.

"If anyone went into that river during that flood, they wouldn't survive it. The volume of water that comes down there is just phenomenal. It would have been pretty quick. They didn't have a chance - not in that river, not in that gorge. It's a lovely place but you can't compete with Mother Nature."

The sheer force of the slip tore the campervan apart. The chassis ended up embedded across a boulder 80m away. The body and engine of the vehicle have not been found.

A massive search followed involving an alpine rescue team, search and rescue volunteers, helicopters, jet boats and locals on foot, quadbike and horseback.

Every log jam and pile of debris along the river to the coast, a stretch of about 50km, was examined.

A fuel tank was washed up, a cabinet cupboard door was found almost buried in gravel with just the top poking out and the van's mangled kitchen sink was hauled from the water, twisted and gnarled as if it were made of plastic.

The warped chassis was airlifted out of the river bed, sniffer dogs were brought in and the beaches were searched at every low tide.

A single $100 Canadian note was found in the riverbed, followed by the rubber boot from the gear stick and items of clothing belonging to the missing couple.

And then, the biggest find: Joanna.

After another storm, which flooded the river again and flushed its contents out to a rough Tasman Sea, Joanna's body was located on North Haast beach.

"That's what we hope will happen with Connor. There's so much gravel, hundreds of tonnes that have slipped and been washed into the river. Connor's body could be buried under a couple of tonnes, you just don't know," says Manera.

Joanna was the youngest of three children, who all celebrate their birthdays within the same week.

Middle brother Jeffrey's Facebook post on his birthday, on September 23, shows how hard this tragedy has hit the tight-knit family.

"My only birthday wish is for Connor and Joanna to come home together."

Earlier, he'd spoken to a local news agency about his sister on behalf of his grief-stricken parents, who could do little but sit and cry.

"I don't think anyone can feel the way we're feeling with such a tragic event."

Younger sister Siobhan also posted a poignant Facebook message: "Went together, come home together."

That's exactly what Haast is hoping for.

Greg Hope and his search dog Dave search the Haast Beach for Connor Hayes' body. Photo / Christine Cornege
Greg Hope and his search dog Dave search the Haast Beach for Connor Hayes' body. Photo / Christine Cornege

Land Search and Rescue member Greg Hope has been out daily looking for Connor. He takes his dog, Dave, and they scour the coast for up to two and a half hours at a time.

His wife, Nathalie, is Canadian-born and hails from Ottawa, close to where the Hayes live. She and the family have been messaging each other, and struck up a bond.

"When they come out, they will stay with us," Hope tells the Weekend Herald.

"I just hope we find Connor, just so they have some kind of closure. Having found one, you really want to find the other. It feels unfair. But it's difficult because we don't even know if Connor was freed from the upper reaches of the river. He could even be 10m from the crash site, buried under gravel. We just do not know.

'We really have to assume it's an achievable situation and carry on."

Connor's father, Michael, has told Hope he wants to hold a memorial service for his son in the town where he was last seen alive.

He will use it as an opportunity to thank those who have spent countless hours out searching for his boy.

Before leaving for New Zealand he spoke with local Ottawa television station CTV.

"I know if I was missing he would drop whatever he was doing and come and look for me. Everybody looks at these incidents and goes 'that would be awful if that was our child'. For my family, this is our child, so we are devastated. I am just very happy to have been his dad. Whether we find him or not, it's all good."

The search for Connor was scaled back last Sunday. But it's by no means over. Locals have promised to keep looking, including the resident cop on his days off and well past the end of his shift.

"You're constantly thinking about it and you think 'what about this place, it might be worth another look'. It ends up consuming you, really," says Manera.

"We'll just keep going, we'll keep chipping away and hope for the best."

- NZ Herald

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