Vaimoana Tapaleao is the New Zealand Herald's Pacific Affairs and People reporter.

Students mourning 'character'

Tuakau College offers counselling after drowning at popular Hunua Falls.
Hunua Falls in south Auckland. Photo / Michael Craig
Hunua Falls in south Auckland. Photo / Michael Craig

Students at a Tuakau high school, south of Auckland, are mourning the death of a classmate who drowned at the Hunua Falls on Easter Monday.

Tuakau College has paid tribute to one of its students, Lilatoni Vetemotu, known as Toni, whose body was recovered from Hunua Falls late on Monday night after going missing at about 3pm that day.

"It is with deepest sadness that we inform you of the passing of Toni Vetemotu, a Year 9 student at Tuakau College," the school wrote on its official Facebook page.

"Toni is the 13-year-old who lost his life at the Hunua Falls over Easter."

The school said students would be well supported in the coming days. The college's guidance counsellor would be leading the support.

The teenager's death comes just more than a week after 17-year-old Peter Iakopo Lemalu drowned at Hunua Falls.


Dozens of tributes have appeared on social media, with many young people calling for the swimming spot to be closed off to the public.

"RIP to another brother, Toni. Shucks, man. Gone [too] fast. I know the heavenly father will look after you," one friend wrote.

"To your family, stay strong and know that the plan of salvation is true. He's always with you. Sorry for your loss and much love. They should close Hunua Falls."

Tuakau College principal Chris Betty said Toni came from a well-known family within the school. Three of Toni's siblings are also students at the college.

"He was a bit of a character - a likeable character - and he worked really hard," Mr Betty said.

"It's really sad for us, as a school community, and the whanau is getting strong support."

Peter Iakopo Lemalu, another 17 year old who died while swimming at Hunua Falls. Photo / Supplied
Peter Iakopo Lemalu, another 17 year old who died while swimming at Hunua Falls. Photo / Supplied

Mr Betty said representatives of the college visited Toni's family yesterday.

A family spokeswoman told the Herald they were waiting for Toni's father to arrive from Australia to talk about funeral preparations.

Family and friends were rallying behind the family, who were "leaning on their faith" to get them through, the spokeswoman said.

The school is working with the Ministry of Education on counselling services for students affected by the death.

An assembly was held yesterday to inform students of Toni's death and also offer them support.

Toni is among more than a dozen people who have lost their lives at the popular Hunua Falls, near the South Auckland suburb of Papakura.

It is thought up to 17 people have drowned at the spot - many after jumping into the water from the cliff at the falls.

In recent years, the deaths and injuries at the swimming spot have happened on holidays, including during the Easter period, Anzac Day and Boxing Day.

Toni was with family members when he got into difficulty while swimming on Easter Monday.

A family member attempted to rescue the youngster but was unsuccessful.

- NZ Herald

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