Calls to shut falls to swimmers after another drowning

By Catherine Gaffaney, Tess Nichol

An Easter holiday trip to a scenic waterfall turned to despair when a 13-year-old boy disappeared beneath the water as his desperate family tried in vain to save him.

Another teenager - an older relative - dived in but "had to let go" after the younger boy got into trouble while swimming at Hunua Falls, southeast of Auckland, yesterday about 3pm.

A police spokeswoman this morning confirmed the body of the missing 13-year-old who disappeared swimming at the popular south Auckland waterhole was found last night.

Police said members of the National Dive Squad recovered his body night just after 10:30pm.

The teenager was at the swimming hole with members of his extended family when he got into difficulties in the water yesterday afternoon.

A member of his family tried to rescue him however the effort was unsuccessful.

His family were now being supported by Police and Victim Support..

The name of the dead boy was due to be released once all next-of-kin had been notified.

At least 17 people are believed to have died at the falls before the latest tragedy, and there are now calls for urgent action by the Auckland Council to prevent further drownings.

Grieving relatives of 17-year-old Peter Lemalu, who drowned at the falls just nine days earlier, believe the area should have been shut down years ago.

Yesterday, distraught relatives and members of the public attempted to find the boy after he slipped under the water, said Senior Sergeant John Yearbury, of Counties Manukau Police.

Police, fire and ambulance staff attended the scene and the Eagle helicopter flew over the area where the boy disappeared, but it could not see anything from the air.

Mr Yearbury told the Herald an older teenage boy, who was a family member, tried to save the 13-year-old.

"Another teenager tried to rescue him but he couldn't. He said he had to let go."

Mr Yearbury did not know whether the younger boy could swim or what he had been wearing at the time. Police were also unsure how the boy got into trouble.

St John was stood down from the scene by police shortly before 4.45pm.

Police divers were headed to the scene last night.

Police roped the falls off, closing the area to the public.

Peter Lemalu drowned at the falls on March 19 despite the efforts of two American tourists who tried to save him.

His sister, Ruth Kepi, said on Facebook last night that her prayers went out to the 13-year-old's family.

Not again ... a week after and this happens. This place should have been shut down years ago!
Ruth Kepi, sister of earlier Hunua Falls victim Peter Lemalu

"Not again ... a week after and this happens. This place should have been shut down years ago!"

Mr Lemalu's cousin, Cecilia Sagote, told the Herald she believed the council should be doing more to make the area safe. "I'm not happy ... what precautions are they taking to ensure it doesn't happen again?"

A sign at the falls and the council website warn visitors to the falls that the waterfall pool is unsafe for swimming.

The sign also says there is no lifeguard service at the falls and outlines the Water Safety Code.

Auckland Council parks, sport and recreation manager Mace Ward said the falls posed several risks to swimmers because of sharp drops in depth and swift currents.

Along with signage, life rings were available to swimmers.

Mr Ward wouldn't comment on whether the council would improve the safety of the area or close the falls down while the incident was under police investigation.

In 2013, the Herald reported that Indian national Daksh Modasia, 20, was at least the 16th person to die at the falls. Most deaths were due to people jumping from the top.

Safety was reviewed at the falls after Mr Modasia's death. Over the years, various tracks to the top of the falls have been improved or closed, extra signs installed and fencing improved. Signs at the bottom of the falls have also been enlarged in collaboration with Water Safety NZ.

Hunua Ranges Regional Park senior ranger Wayne Carlson said at the time that it would be difficult to fence the pool and that would affect the site's scenic appeal.

Water safety expert Dr Kevin Moran, of Auckland University, said the falls were a "blackspot" but he didn't believe closing the area would deter swimmers.

"There will always be people who disobey rules," he said.

"Things go wrong in the water when people underestimate risk or overestimate their ability to cope with the risk.

"We need to not only teach people the aquatic skills of how to swim, but also about risks."

Thirty-one people have drowned in New Zealand waters this year.

- NZ Herald

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