Two remain missing in river tragedy

By Kim Fulton of NZME, Brendon McMahon of the Greymouth Star

A small West Coast community is continuing to rally together as bad weather hampers a search for two people - one a toddler - swept away when a the vehicle they were in became stuck in the Poerua River near Hari Hari about lunchtime yesterday.

Three people got out safely, but two remain unaccounted for including 66-year-old Barry Petrie of Cobden.

Mr Petrie was undertaking possum control in the area at the time.

The other person missing is a two-year-old girl.

The community were supporting her family.

"We personally know the family involved, they work in the valley," long-time Hari Hari resident Tom Clarkson said.

South Westland Area School principal Ross Brockbank said the school was closely involved in the search.

"It's one of the worst things that can happen in a small community," Mr Brockbank said.

"We all don't need this. As I understand, there's going to be at least two families affected by this - our thoughts go out to them."

Mr Brockbank said four of the school staff were directly involved in the search - with the Hari Hari Volunteer Fire Brigade, St John, and the whitewater rescue team.

"It's big for us."

Meanwhile, an appeal was launched in South Westland this morning for the family of the missing girl. People were being asked to make food donations for a basket, via the area school community.

Hari Hari resident Mary Malloy, who had known Mr Petrie for 30 years, said if he could have helped anyone on that river he would have done so.

She said he had been a successful triathlete and had once been her husband's biggest competition.

Mrs Molloy said the incident was horrible for Mr Petrie's family.

She said it would be great if the two of them were found together on the side of the river, but conditions had been rough.Mr Petrie worked as a possum control monitor and, although Mrs Molloy didn't agree with his work as she was opposed to the use of 1080, she said he was a decent man.

Mrs Malloy said she didn't believe Mr Petrie and the toddler were related, but thought he'd been working in the area and the two had been sharing a ride.

West Coast police area commander Inspector Mel Aitken this afternoon said police and volunteers were continuing to search for the pair.

This morning the LandSAR White Water rescue team had been on the river in kayaks. A boat had also been part of the search along with the NZCC Rescue Helicopter, she said.
"Unfortunately the search this morning has not uncovered anything."

Ms Aitken said the water level in the Poerua River remained high and it was continuing to rain.

These conditions were limiting the search.

"Our thoughts are with the families on this tragic occasion. This is a particularly hard time for everyone involved."

The search efforts were continuing.The initial search swung into action shortly after midday yesterday when a 4x4 vehicle was swamped while crossing the river, downstream from the State highway 6 bridge and in the vicinity of Oneone Road. At least three occupants who managed to get free had been accounted for by last night.

Hari Hari fire chief John McIntosh said yesterday the vehicle was partly submerged when the brigade arrived, but within 10 minutes it was fully under water.

"You couldn't see anything," he said.

Helicopters, ground searchers, and a whitewater kayaking team searched throughout the afternoon but it was called off due to failing light, with police saying last night they held "grave fears" for the missing pair.

Mr Clarkson said the warm weather this morning would only make search conditions worse as it would melt snow in the headwaters and fuel the already swollen stream. Overall, conditions at Hari Hari late this morning were "atrocious".

What had happened was "very sad" and the outcome for those missing was not good.
"Basically, it's status quo from last night," Mr Clarkson said.

Federated Farmers West Coast provincial president Katie Milne said Mr Petrie was an "awesome fella", an "absolute stalwart", and well known throughout the West Coast.

She said he had been involved with pest control work and in helping with TB eradication.
She said the incident was "awful" and something the community didn't need.

- NZ Herald

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