A flash flood that exploded through the Waiohine Gorge has been blamed by an expert on the river system for capsizing an inflatable raft that killed an Oscar-winning sound editor.
Masterton police Senior Sergeant Carolyn Watson yesterday confirmed Greytown man Michael Alexander Hopkins, 53, drowned in the tragedy that struck on Sunday afternoon in the upper reaches of the Waiohine River. Two others, including the dead man's wife, survived.
Mr Hopkins had worked on some of the biggest films in Hollywood and won Academy Awards for his work on the Sir Peter Jackson trilogy The Lord of the Rings and King Kong.
Veteran jetboat pilot Bruce Slater, who rescued Mr Hopkins' wife from where she was clinging to riverside vegetation, blamed heavy rainfall that on Sunday dumped into the river system a massive volume of water, which became bottlenecked where the tragedy unfolded at the Waiohine Gorge.
"The river rose in about five minutes," Mr Slater said.
"I presume it was low and the water was clear when they launched their boat, which was a three-man inflatable. The next thing the river jumped from 10 cubic metres a second to 300 cubic metres a second. It rose extremely quickly."
Mr Slater, 65, who has been plying the Waiohine River for almost 50 years, said he and his son, Andrew, had launched his Hamilton jetboat from Kuratawhiti St and the flash flood had lifted the river level to two and a half metres in a very short time.
Police sent the pair to rescue Mr Hopkins' wife from a point about 500m from the Waiohine Gorge cableway, he said, and they also retrieved the 4m raft from where it had snagged on an island in the middle of the river.
"They were very unlucky because they had all the safety equipment, wetsuits, life jackets and everything. If they'd been half an hour earlier they would have made it. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time," Mr Slater said.
He said Mr Hopkins' wife was unaware her husband had died or the location of her other rafting companion when she was plucked from the riverbank.
"She did not know when we got her in the boat. She did ask and we knew one person had drowned but we were unaware whether or not it was her husband at that point, so we were unable to answer her," Mr Slater said. The Waiohine River was "treacherous, like any river" and he advised rafters, hunters and swimmers to check river levels and weather online before setting out.
Masterton police Senior Sergeant Carolyn Watson thanked Mr Slater and his son, who at considerable risk to themselves had performed the rescue.