When they turned up at Esk Valley in a “jetboat”, they looked like official rescuers. But no, they were just “just three Māori boys” the trio told people as they loaded them in. James Pocock reports on their heroics.
The last thing cousins Mikey and Rikki Kihi heard from their family before they lost contact in the early hours of Tuesday was that they were climbing on to the roof of their Esk Valley home.
Rather than wait for news, they took things into their own hands.
The pair went to friend Morehu Maxwell, who owns a “jetboat”, and raced down to help.
“It all happened so fast. Rikki showed up at my house at roughly 5am Tuesday saying to gear up in my wetsuit,” Mikey said.
The trio took the boat with a fully loaded four-by-four through road slips and fences, cutting their way through fallen trees with help from locals.
“Once we reached the top of Hill Rd in the breaking daylight, the full impact of what was happening started to sink in,” Mikey said.
“The river stretched from hillside to hillside spanning almost a good 700 metres of raging water. I mean it took my breath away.”
“Everything from housing to cars mixed with mud and silt just floating downstream with the current.”
They launched the boat out from below Eskdale School and were hit with the full extent of the navigational challenge ahead of them.
“Powerlines toppled in all directions. The water was thick with silt which made it impossible to gauge depths.”
Morehu was forced to make split-second decisions at every turn while the three of them periodically dealt with clearing jet intake blockages, at risk of being swept away by the current while the engine was cut.
Mikey said they had not expected the number of people they saw all around as they jetted out, stuck on rooftops, trees or even stranded caravans.
Their first stop was their family, a mother, father and daughter along with their four dogs.
Mikey said they found them holed up atop a pile of drawers stacked on top of their beds, while the dog kennels had washed up against a newly formed “sandbank”.
They took the family to the Linden Estate Winery, where others had gathered as a relatively high safe point.
“They offered to help get the family warmed up and sheltered as the rain was thundering down.”
He said Rikki, Morehu and himself went back out a couple of minutes later and went on to perform several more rescues as the situation continued to worsen.
They found the highway turned into a river and were quickly waved down by two older men stranded on their floating caravan.
“Both men were exhausted, we managed to latch on to the caravan and help them on to the inflatable,” Mikey said.
On trips to and from Linden Estate the trio located and rescued two passengers trapped in a truck and two stranded road workers.
“They [the road workers] had been helping with the evacuation that night when water burst the river banks and witnessed everyone being swept away,” Mikey said.
He said they were limited in where they could go and were left using vision primarily to locate people.
He said one couple trapped on their deck waved them down but refused help, the man asking for them to go get his brother and young family first.
“‘Hell no, get them please! They have young kids!’ Making the call, we powered over to the house,” Mikey said.