Search practice needs change, inquest told

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DISAPPEARED: Fiona Wills, who disappeared on her family farm in December 2014. PHOTO/FILE
DISAPPEARED: Fiona Wills, who disappeared on her family farm in December 2014. PHOTO/FILE

Family of alzheimers sufferer Fiona Wills who disappeared on her family's Te Pohue farm and garden 15 months ago say the initial search and rescue procedures were not up to scratch and should be modified to make searches more effective in the future.

The concerns were expressed as an inquest started in Hastings today, relating to the December 9, 2014, disappearance and presumed death of 77-year-old Mrs Mills, mother of Federated Farmers immediate-past national president Bruce Wills.

She was last seen alive in the early evening as she left her house to feed her chooks in a nearby run.

Despite a search started about half-an-hour later, soon involving police searchers and LandSAR volunteers and eventually dozens of friends, neighbours and other volunteers around Trelinnoe Station and its associated gardens, no trace was ever found of the missing woman.

Fit and active, she suffered advanced alzheimers and required fulltime family and nursing care, and according to evidence had recently been assessed as needing placement care, although grand-daughter Kate Wills, the last to see her alive, said that because of the condition, Mrs Wills probably would not have been aware of that position.

She had recently lost her husband of 56 years who had died about three weeks earlier, and despite the impact kept to a routine with little apparent memory of those around her and what she was doing, to the point of feeding the chooks several times a day, because she had forgotten they had just been fed.

An official search started on the Tuesday night of the disappearance, and when it ended two days later family sought assistance from the recognised authority and trainers Search and Rescue Institute of New Zealand and director Ross Gordon.

SARINZ reviewed the initial search to determine what the family needed to do when it resumed the hunt, ultimately co-ordinated by Bruce Wills, and the family says the company's report "highlighted a number of deficiencies in the field search phase."

"The family have decided to bring these deficiencies to the attention of the Coronial Inquest in the hope that the Coroner will make recommendations which, if implemented. will significantly improve future search and rescue practices," a family statement said.

The family was not pointing the finger at those in the Trelinnoe search and said: "These deficiencies appear to be New Zealand-wide and amplified by training not being aligned with international best practice."

"Our hope is that future search and rescue efforts will have a higher chance of safely returning lost loved ones to their families."

The inquest, before district coroner Chris Devonport, is scheduled to last four days, with evidence from at least 18 people, including family, police and LandSAR members, and Mr Gordon.

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