A man working nearby the Abbey Caves has recounted the moment a teacher did a headcount and realised a boy, now dead, was missing before the teacher broke down in anguish.
A Year 11 Whangārei Boys’ High School student disappeared after he and 14 of his classmates, accompanied by two teachers, got into difficulty on an outdoor education trip on Tuesday.
Caleb Salisbury, a concreter who was working near the accessway to the caves told the Herald 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’.”
Salisbury said more boys and two teachers came out afterwards and did a headcount.
“He [the teacher] thought he’d got them all out. I counted 16, he counted 17, so he counted again and then he just broke down and started bawling.
“He just collapsed. He was mortified. So me and a kid ran down to the caves to see if we could do anything.
“But you know, the water was just so intense. It was a serious deluge of water, like, seriously bucketing down. The main thing is that that teacher did everything that he could to save those boys.”
Salisbury phoned 111 and was there when the teacher explained everything to emergency services.
“He was explaining what had happened and what he had done, you know, the water had come up so fast, like, it was head deep within a minute, it, it just flooded the cave so fast,” Salisbury said.
“There was a bunch of guys getting sucked under a ledge below him [the teacher] and he pulled five guys out from under that ledge. By the time he pulled the last guy out the water was over his head and he was pinned against the rock.”
Salisbury told the Herald he’d “been in tears a bunch of times over it” but had found comfort in his faith.
“It’s so sad. You’re so helpless. There’s nothing you can do in that situation. It’s a miracle we [co-workers] were there.
“It was a pretty intense situation for those young fellas to go through and then lose a friend. Yeah. Harrowing.”
Whangārei Boys’ High School principal Karen Gilbert-Smith said she knew there would be a lot of questions to answer, “but I am simply not in a position to provide answers at this early stage out of respect for the whānau”.
“It’s really important for me to let you know how devastated we are that one of our whānau have lost a much-loved and treasured son and brother. The impact of this tragedy is being felt widely amongst our school staff, students and community,” she said.
She said a full and comprehensive investigation by police and WorkSafe into the incident needed to be completed, and “[the school] will, of course, fully comply”.
One of the last things the ill-fated 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.
A former Abbey Caves tour guide told the Herald just 2 to 3mm of rain would normally 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. Come Tuesday morning, as the tragedy unfolded, 23mm fell between midnight and lunchtime.