Parents of the 2-year-old missing in a West Coast river have spoken of their daughter who "was a happy, cheeky little girl."

Michael and Sandra Saunders have released a family statement through police this afternoon, thanking everyone involved in the Poerua River search effort - halted this afternoon due to bad weather.

The couple also paid tribute to Barry Petrie, 66, who died trying to save their daughter.

"We would like to thank the police, search and rescue and all the countless people involved in the ongoing search for Emily.


"We would also like to thank the local community for their kind help and support during this difficult time.

The Poerua River in flood where the car lies submerged beneath the surface. Photo / Supplied
The Poerua River in flood where the car lies submerged beneath the surface. Photo / Supplied

"Our thoughts are with Barry's family as well at this time. His efforts trying to save Emily will never be forgotten.

"Our daughter Emily was a happy, cheeky little girl who loved the outdoors".

Mr Petrie and infant Saunders were part of a group travelling across the river in Emily's parents' 4WD when it got stuck and became submerged. Petrie's body was found in the river yesterday.

The occupants got out of the vehicle and a man grabbed Emily's mother, Sandra, but lost his grip on Emily due to the strong current.

Earlier today police confirmed poor conditions just after noon halted the search and rescue mission at the Poerua River. It is not known when they will be able to resume with rescuers in the hands of the elements - which are forecast to get worse.

"A search effort by a land search and rescue dog team and a helicopter to locate missing two-year-old Emily Saunders has been unsuccessful this morning," police said in a statement.

"The search has been suspended for today. Further search and rescue efforts will be dependent on weather conditions, which are expect to worsen with a severe weather warning issued for Westland over the weekend.

"Police recognise this is a difficult time for the family and our thoughts are with them."

Search and rescue teams have been out searching since but there has been no sign of Emily.

NZME yesterday uncovered the dramatic details of the frantic efforts to save the toddler and her mother as they were swept out of their vehicle.

Mr Petrie was out possum trapping with several others near the Poerua River, south of Hokitika just after midday on Thursday. The group were picked up by Michael and Sandra Saunders who were travelling with their daughter Emily.

As they tried to cross the river the Saunders' 4WD got stuck and became submerged.

Frank Simpson, who owns the farm where the Saunders worked as sharemilkers, revealed what happened in the terrifying moments that followed.

"They had to abandon the vehicle and that's when it all happened," Mr Simpson told the Weekend Herald.

"One of the guys grabbed the little girl and Sandra at the same time, but he lost his grip on the little girl because the river was running that fast, he was up to his chest in water."

Mrs Saunders survived but little Emily is still missing.

Searchers found the body of Mr Petrie just after 2.30pm yesterday.

Mr Simpson said he was devastated by the loss of a little girl who was "like a granddaughter".

"We treated her like our granddaughter, that's why it's knocking us around a bit," he said.
"I've got grandkids around the same age."