Trio saved in river death plunge

By Nathan Crombie nathan.crombie@age.co.nz -
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A police diver secures a chain strop to the wreckage of a car that plunged into the Waipoua River near Masterton, killing a 35-year-old Lower Hutt man this morning. PHOTOS/NATHAN CROMBIE
A police diver secures a chain strop to the wreckage of a car that plunged into the Waipoua River near Masterton, killing a 35-year-old Lower Hutt man this morning. PHOTOS/NATHAN CROMBIE

Three crash survivors - injured, hypothermic and terrified - were plucked to safety by helicopter after they were stranded for more than an hour on the mangled wreckage of a car that had plunged into a swollen Masterton river.

Police confirmed Lower Hutt man, Benjamin Young, 35, was killed after being thrown from the Holden Commodore GTS that struck a bridge spanning the Waipoua River on Paierau Rd at Matahiwi, on the north-western outskirts of Masterton about 4am Saturday.

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The three survivors, a man and two women in their 20s and 30s, were taken to Wairarapa Hospital with hypothermia and a range of moderate to serious injuries.

Barry Gleeson, who has lived beside the bridge for more than two decades, said the crash was the third of which he was aware at the same site and the second fatality on the nearby stretch of road, which includes a long strait leading up to the bridge and a sweeping bend.

He said the crash had woken himself and his wife Christine about 4am and in pitch darkness the couple had come across a scene of devastation and heard cries 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 before the car stopped and then I heard 'help help' out in the darkness."

Police divers and community rescue team members look down from the Paierau Rd bridge into the swollen Waipoua River below and the mangled wreck of a crashed vehicle.
Police divers and community rescue team members look down from the Paierau Rd bridge into the swollen Waipoua River below and the mangled wreck of a crashed vehicle.

Mr 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 a car that was barely above the black and fast-flowing waters.

He said the river had been about ankle deep before heavy rain on Friday night had raised the water level to about a metre and a half at its deepest.

"The fella on the car was cool. I mean he wasn't, but he 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 calm and warm.

"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 at least didn't have much on either," he said.

Police divers, rescue and salvage workers ready the mangled wreckage of a late model Holden Commodore for recovery from the Waipoua River.
Police divers, rescue and salvage workers ready the mangled wreckage of a late model Holden Commodore for recovery from the Waipoua River.

"At first I was scared stiff 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 car had toppled about 30 metres of roadside fencing before striking the left abutment of the bridge heading into Masterton, tearing the vehicle apart and throwing the man who died on to the near river bank. Debris was strewn across the length of the bridge and several fence posts had been hurled across the river to the far bank.

Mr Gleeson said a car had about five months ago struck the bridge and about seven years ago he had helped rescue a woman driver who had left the road after hitting the bridge and "ended up on the other side of the river in the bush and willows".

He was to ask Masterton District Council to consider installing safety barriers leading up to the bridge, he said.

Life Flight Trust crewman Julian Burn, who was aboard the Westpac Rescue Helicopter, said the pre-dawn rescue had been "challenging and tricky" in the darkness with high tension power lines and riverside trees flanking the crash scene.

The pilot and himself, as winch operator, had used night vision goggles and the helicopter was kept relatively high while winching down a paramedic "so we didn't blow the survivors off the roof" before each was plucked to safety one by one.

"There was only a couple of centimetres of the car above the water and they were on an area of roof about a half metre square.

"It was a pretty precarious spot too with powerlines and tall trees nearby. But they did the right thing staying with the car. It would have been a very bad idea to try and swim because the water was running pretty fast. They did well."

Mr Burn said one of the women had a suspected broken arm and all three survivors were hypothermic.

The wreckage of a Holden Commodore GTS is winched to the river bank from the middle of the Waipoua River near the Paierau Rd bridge on the outskirts of Masterton.
The wreckage of a Holden Commodore GTS is winched to the river bank from the middle of the Waipoua River near the Paierau Rd bridge on the outskirts of Masterton.

The serious crash unit was at the site today and police divers, the Upper Hutt Community Rescue team and salvage workers had recovered the wreckage from the river using an inflatable craft and a heavy crane.

Masterton firefighters were also at the scene and the surrounding roads were cordoned and traffic detoured for several hours until the salvage was completed.

Police believe speed was a factor in the crash and blood samples were taken from the survivors to determine if alcohol was involved.

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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