Reporter for the New Zealand Herald

Community rally around parents of baby swept into West Coast river

Two-year-old Emily Saunders was swept away in the flooded Poerua River near Greymouth. Photo / Facebook
Two-year-old Emily Saunders was swept away in the flooded Poerua River near Greymouth. Photo / Facebook

A small West Coast community has rallied around the parents of baby Emily Saunders who was swept into a swollen river after the vehicle she was travelling in got stuck in rising waters, and members of the public are continuing to search for her body so a funeral can be held for the little girl.

On June 10, the 4WD vehicle that carried 2-year-old Emily, her parents Mike and Sandra Saunders, and two others, became stuck in the Poerua River near Hari Hari.

Three struggled to safety, but two - Emily and 66-year-old Barry Petrie - were swept off by the icy water.

The Saunders' other two daughters, aged eight and five were at school when the accident happened.

Mr Petrie's body was later found, but Emily's was not and on June 16, after three weeks of looking for her body, police announced the search was called off.

Frank Simpson, owner of the farm on which Emily's parents worked, said they were holding up, considering what had happened, and Mike was beginning to work again to take his mind off things.

"They're coping pretty well. They have good days and bad days," Mr Simpson said.

There had been very few clear days since June 10, he said, so the search was tough.

"The weather's been atrocious, there's been heavy rain for nearly a fortnight - ever since it happened there was only one fine day when they did a major search - then they called it off. There are people going up there when they can to have a look on the beaches and that - Hari Hari people."

He said there were two rivers and it was a difficult area to search - they didn't want to lose anyone else.

"We're lucky to have Mike - we could have lost him too the way things happened."

At the time of the accident, one of the men grabbed Emily and Sandra out of the vehicle, Mr Simpson said.

He said Mike took them but lost grip of his little girl.

"It was lucky we didn't lose Mike too - his wet weather gear was wrapped around his legs. It was his strength that saved him, but his family was torn out of his hands because he tumbled in the water.

"This community has had some tragedy in the past. Families have come to help - in rural areas we really look out for our own."

Mr Simpson said the Lions had raised funds so that Mike's parents to fly to New Zealand and be with him and his wife.

And he and his wife had recently gifted Mike and Sandra a framed photo of Emily.

"They haven't got many photos of her. We look after them - they've got no relatives in New Zealand," he said.

He said they were talking about having a memorial soon - but were hoping they'd recover her body first.

- NZ Herald

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