In a dramatic rescue effort, volunteer firefighters from Tairāwhiti formed a human chain to pull a family of three out of a submerged ute.
The family were travelling back to their house in Ruatoria from Gisborne around 7.30pm yesterday.
But their usual commute was disrupted by terrible weather and they were unaware that river levels had risen.
The trio were crossing a ford as ex-tropical Cyclone Hale lashed the region when they became stuck in the Kopuaroa Stream, about 11 kilometres south of Ruatoria off State Highway 35.
Waiapu Civil Defence co-ordinator and Ruatoria Fire Brigade volunteer firefighter James Palmer told the Herald this morning that the family’s house was across the stream.
“It is like their driveway, due to the lack of a proper road they drive over the stream to get to their house,” Palmer said.
“The weather yesterday was mild and settled in town, where the family had been for a day trip, but up on the coast the rainfalls are heavy and as a result, the stream was swollen.
“The Hilux was halfway across the stream with windows up when we arrived. It was submerged and the people inside had water up to their waists while sitting inside.
“The man inside was able to speak to the police.”
Palmer said the crews arrived from Tikitiki as well, and other emergency services were also called to the scene.
“Then we discussed the plan to get them out. We talked about safety and the best way to access the ute,” he said.
“We wanted to tie it so it would stop and not go further down the stream.
“We needed to get our team across the other side because then it would be easy to access the vehicle.
“Two teams went there. They secured a line, tying the rope... anchoring it to the vehicle and then the tree to stop it from flowing away. Afterwards, we formed a human chain that enabled the whānau to be rescued.”
Ruatoria Constable Justin Moore, who was first on the scene, told the Herald a child, a man and a woman were taken to safety in the rescue yesterday.
“I arrived at the same time as the ambulance. The car had water halfway up to the windows. Firefighters and local volunteer fire brigades joined us shortly,” Moore said.
“The plan was created. Blackbee, a local contractor, got the digger out to help but it was too big. The firefighters got to the other side of the river with the rope forming a human chain and we were able to get the people out safely.
“They appeared shaken but everyone was uninjured. We could not get the car out.”
Moore said the rescue showed “true Coast spirit... working together to get the job done”.
The rescue was a pointed reminder of the risks involved in moving about during heavy rain events.
“Please exercise extreme caution on the roads for the next few days,” has been the plea from Civil Defence.
“The water in the stream was deeper than the family thought,” Moore said.
“Luckily everyone was successfully rescued but we urge everyone to avoid any unnecessary travel and potential risks to lives.”
Ruatoria chief fire officer Monty Manuel said the fire crews used a water rescue kit that included lifejackets, helmets and ropes.
“We crossed the swollen stream on foot and secured the ute with a rope tied onto the shore on the opposite bank,” Manuel said.
“We assessed the family at that point to check they were OK, and while they were a bit cold, they were OK.”
A digger was used in an attempt to shift the ute out of the swollen stream while the family remained inside. he said.
“However, that was deemed to be unsafe. Instead, firefighters from Ruatoria and Tikitiki formed a human chain and we got the family out of the vehicle,” Manuel said.
“One by one we manhandled them, using the rope for support, eight to 10 metres through the floodwaters to the safety of the shore.”
It was dark by the time the rescue was completed.
Manuel said it was a “massive team effort by everyone in challenging conditions”.
“Special thanks to Boss Blackbee from Blackbee Contractors for his assistance with the digger and particularly its lights during the final stages of the rescue.”
CFO Manuel was not sure about what happened to the ute.
“Getting the family out of it safely was what we were concerned about.”
Additional reporting: Murray Robertson, The Gisborne Herald