'It was chaotic and surreal'

By Nathan Crombie -
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A police diver secures a chain to the wreckage in the Waipoua River. Photo / Nathan Crombie
A police diver secures a chain to the wreckage in the Waipoua River. Photo / Nathan Crombie

A man who rushed to a fatal crash before dawn yesterday morning recounted the horror that awaited him after a car plunged into a flooded river.

Benjamin Young, 35, from Lower Hutt, died when the late-model Holden Commodore left the road and travelled up to 60m before striking a concrete barrier and hurtling into the Waipoua River, just north of Masterton, about 4am yesterday.

He was flung from the wreckage and his body was found on a nearby riverbank.

Police say a man and two women in their 20s and 30s were lucky to be alive, crediting the quick actions of local man Barry Gleeson and the crew of the Westpac Rescue Helicopter, who undertook a dangerous rescue mission, for saving their lives.

Gleeson, who has lived beside the bridge for the past two decades, said the crash had woken him and his wife and in pitch darkness he came across a scene of devastation and heard survivors crying for help.

"It was chaotic and surreal. Just disastrous. I didn't know what had happened at first but I had a torch and was making my way down the bank when another car came and hit some rubble. I knew then it was a crash.

"I started calling emergency services. Then I heard 'help help' out in the darkness."

Gleeson scrambled down the riverbank and saw a man holding a semi-conscious woman in his arms beside another woman perched on the wreckage of the car, which was barely above the fast-flowing water.

"The fella on the car doesn't know how much he helped the situation. He'd managed to drag the semi-conscious woman up out of the water and was trying to keep her warm and calm.

"As much as he was wanting us to get in and save him, we were just trying to give them reassurance the car wasn't going to move. Just trying to calm them until help arrived. I can tell you it was bloody cold and wet down there and the girls didn't have much on either.

"At first I was scared to be honest. Two of them said they could swim and one couldn't, and if that car had started moving - you can't just stand there and let them drift away, you know."

The Holden is winched out.
The Holden is winched out.

Life Flight Trust Wellington's Westpac Rescue Helicopter carried out a complicated operation to pull the three survivors to safety.

Winch operator Julian Burn said they had to avoid getting too close to the trio in case the 110km/h winds generated by the helicopter's rotors blew them off the car and into the river.

The pilot positioned the chopper about 25m above the submerged vehicle while Burn lowered a paramedic.

One by one the paramedic attached a harness to the survivors and hauled them up.

"They were cold and they were very emotional because they had just lost their friend," Burn said.

"It was the hardest one I've ever done, just due to the factors: night-time, on the roof of a car, in a swift river, limited space, poor weather.

"But the pilot and the paramedic and the guys on the ground all did a fantastic job."

They were yesterday in a stable condition in Wairarapa Hospital.

Acting Sergeant Tony Matheson said the trio "remarkably" escaped from the car.

"The vehicle was almost completely submerged, only a small portion remaining above the flow," Matheson said.

Aside from the three people being very fortunate to survive what appeared to be a high-speed crash, there had also been a real risk of them drowning or succumbing to hypothermia.

"The Westpac [rescue helicopter] and the man who went out saved their lives. It's as simple as that," Matheson said.

Matheson said it appeared that speed was a major factor in the crash.

It was one of two fatal crashes yesterday. A person died and another was seriously injured when a car rolled on State Highway 2, Te Puke East Rd, near Pukehina in western Bay of Plenty, shortly before 8am.

- Additional reporting: Matthew Theunissen

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