Teen tragedy: 'He was so young'

By Greg Taipari -
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Police divers searching yesterday for the body of Lance Tikitere Fitzgerald (inset). PHOTO: Greg Taipari
Police divers searching yesterday for the body of Lance Tikitere Fitzgerald (inset). PHOTO: Greg Taipari

As 13-year-old Lance Tikitere Fitzgerald's lifeless body was brought to the surface by the Police National Dive Squad members, a haunting wail echoed across the Whakatane River from a grieving relative.

Almost 100 members of the youngster's family and friends gathered by the bank waiting for police to bring the youngster to the shore. Lance's father had to be held back by other family members as he called out his son's name, begging the dive team to "bring my boy to me."

The youngster went missing as he was playing with friends around the base of the Whakatane Bridge.

He was standing on a concrete step and was seen to fall backwards approximately 1m into the water and didn't resurface.

Family spokesman, uncle and Lance's caregiver Eru Mita told the Rotorua Daily Post yesterday it was a tragic loss for the family.

"He only just turned 13 in August and he was so looking forward to life and all the opportunities and high school. Just the fact that he was so young, it makes it difficult to comprehend losing him."

Mr Mita said he was grateful to police, search and rescue and Whakatane residents who helped search for Lance right throughout the night.

Whakatane resident Kim Le Bagge was driving past the scene when Lance first went missing.

"It's such a sad thing to happen at this time of the year. I saw one police officer calling out to some rowers who were training, to ask them for help."

Mrs Le Bagge said at the time she didn't realise a person had gone missing.

"I didn't realise until I got home and read it on Facebook, so I came back down to help out... That's what is great about Whakatane, we have a lot of community spirit and want to be able to help out when people need it."

The youngster, who attended Whakatane Intermediate School, was described by his principal Doug McLean as a boy who stood out for the right reasons.

Mr McLean was one of many Whakatane Intermediate teachers and students who turned up at the Whakatane River as the news of the incident spread through phone calls and on social media sites on Wednesday.

The principal described the boy, who had been at the school for the past 18 months, as exceptionally polite.

"He was one of those kids who was prepared to give anything a go," Mr McLean said. "I had him in the sevens side this year and while he didn't know much about the game, he gave it everything."

"Another thing that made him stand out was when you talked to him, he gave you his 100 per cent attention and would always look you in the eye. He had these incredible blue eyes that you couldn't forget."

Mr McLean said receiving the phone call last night had been the worst kind of shock.

"On the last day of school I talked to the students and told them all to keep themselves safe this holiday, especially around water."

It took police about half an hour to find his body which was found under a pylon near where he went missing. His body will be taken back to Hiruharama Marae, Ruatoria.

Rotorua police constable Colin Fraser said it was a tragic incident.

"It's just one of those things where boys will be boys. They were just out having some fun and going for a swim and unfortunately this has happened."

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