Karnin Ahorangi Petera, the Whangārei Boys’ High student swept away in a torrent of floodwater inside Abbey Caves while on a school trip is lying in state at his home.
Petera’s family are preparing for his tangi at Pa Te Oro Marae - Te Karae, some 130km from Whangārei and nestled in quiet rural Kohukohu on a day yet to be announced.
Surrounded by whānau and friends, Petera is remembered as a beautiful, kind, humble boy lost to an ill-fated trip still mired in questions from a distraught community about why it went ahead.
Petera’s whānau extended their welcome to anyone wanting to pay respects to “our loved baby boy” but didn’t want to give any further comments to media while they grieved.
Local hapū have placed a month-long rāhui over the cave system for the cultural and spiritual wellbeing of all affected by the tragic death.
The Year 11 boy’s schoolmates and others who knew him voiced their devastation and grief.
“Even though we weren’t brothers by blood, you will always be one to me. We all miss your smile, your jokes and how you were,” one schoolboy posted online.
“I love you. Fly high.”
One mourner said: “I have known you since you started school with my boy. I took you for cooking lessons, you came to my whare.
“We shared experiences at school camps and outings with other classes and you were always the most well-behaved student,” she wrote.
“[You] never had a bad word or nasty thought of anyone. [My] thoughts and prayers are going to you and your beautiful whānau.
“I am so sorry this happened to you, Karnin. You were a beautiful boy, very humble and had the utmost respect for anyone and everyone you came across.”
Another person wrote: “...He was so nice and positive and deserved much better praying for his justice.”
“I knew [the boy] in primary, he was such a nice boy and should of been able to live his life. The trip should never had gone forward with the weather,” a commenter wrote.
“[He’s] someone’s son, someone’s moko, someone’s friend. May he rest in peace.”
Petera’s wider whānau have set up a Givealittle page to support the immediate family as they cope with the loss - a tragic death Prime Minister Chris Hipkins earlier called “everyone parent’s worst nightmare”.
Ngāti Kahu o Torongare, the hapū of the Abbey Caves area, gathered with kaumātua and whānau at the site to place a formal rāhui over the area yesterday.
The wider community has been reeling since the news a boy went missing and was later found dead, and have been demanding answers about why the caving trip went ahead amid torrential rain.
But education leaders have told the public now is not the time to “second-guess” what went wrong during the trip.
School principal Karen Gilbert-Smith said she knew there would be a lot of questions, “but I am simply not in a position to provide answers at this early stage out of respect for the whānau.”
One of the last things the expedition saw before entering the caves was a large sign warning of the perils of “rapidly” forming floodwaters.
“The caves can fill with water to more than waist-deep on an adult,” it reads.
“Always check the previous week’s rainfall and current weather forecast before entering.”
A former Abbey Caves tour guide said just two to three millimetres of rain would prompt a trip like this to be cancelled due to the propensity for flash flooding.
MetService forecast 90mm of rain for Northland for Tuesday. An orange heavy rain warning was issued for the region. As the tragedy unfolded, 23mm fell between midnight and lunchtime.
Gilbert-Smith paid tribute to Petera on Wednesday and described him as “a much-loved son and brother.”
She earlier announced a “full and comprehensive” investigation by police, WorkSafe and the Ministry of Education would launch, which she said the school would fully comply with.
Te Tai Tokerau Principals Association president and Hora Hora School principal Pat Newman called for compassion.
Newman acknowledged the fierce backlash the school had faced in the wake of Petera’s death but said: “It’s not a time of second-guessing what went wrong, because we all know something went wrong.”
Instead, the Northland teaching community extended their aroha to everyone affected, especially whānau, staff and students.
“At this time, we call upon everybody to do the same,” he said.
Talking about the raw emotions created by the tragedy without delving into exactly what happened would help those impacted deal with their stress, a leading psychology lecturer said.
Massey University Associate Professor of Psychology Kirsty Ross offered the above advice after a number of anxious parents kept their boys home from Whangārei Boys’ High on Wednesday as a sign of respect for Petera’s death.
Ross said after a traumatic event, an acute stress response was not unusual and it involved trouble with sleeping and eating, or people may feel wound up and find it difficult to relax.
A man working nearby the cave system who saw one of the teachers on the trip break down in tears after doing a headcount and realising a boy was missing said he’d been in tears after witnessing it.
Caleb Salisbury, a concreter working near the accessway, said three schoolboys ran to him for help, in tears and shaking: “They were saying, ‘we need a phone, we need a phone - there’s a whole bunch of boys stuck in the cave’.”