When the ground gave way under Tom Stephenson's feet, sending him into a flood-swollen river, the hunter grabbed hold of the chain above his head and held on for dear life.

He recalls that much - the water rushing past him and using the chain to make his way to the bank where his two mates were.

Then there's a big blank.

Mr Stephenson doesn't remember passing out in the water, turning purple, or his two hunting buddies fishing him out and performing CPR to bring him back to life.


The 76-year-old Rotorua man is still waiting to thank those mates, Kelvin Toitoi and Russell Sharp.

While the rescue helicopter flew him to Rotorua Hospital, where he's been since the accident on Saturday, his mates are still trapped at the campsite in the Okahu Valley in the Ureweras, unable to drive out because of road damage from the severe weather.

The drama unfolded when the three went to clear a path for another group trapped several kilometres further up the road.

They were in the process of clearing a way through when "the whole side of the road went out and tipped me into the river".

"I think I hit a submerged rock or a log on the way down ... I won't tell you what I yelled out."

Knowing the chain was within reach, he grabbed on for dear life.

"I knew for sure if I let that chain go I was gone."

Mr Stephenson said he went "hand over hand" down the river to an area where the bank was lower for his friends to help pull him out - and that's when his memory goes.

His mates have told him he went purple and stopped breathing.

When he came to, he was lying in "mud and slush and silt".


"I opened my eyes and I thought I was in the river ... they said 'don't move, you stopped breathing, we've had to resuscitate you'."

They put him in the truck, drove him to the camp and wrapped him in blankets before calling for the Trustpower TECT Rescue Helicopter.

Lucky: Tom Stephenson has two hunting mates to thank for pulling him out of a flood swollen river and reviving him. Photo/Stephen Parker
Lucky: Tom Stephenson has two hunting mates to thank for pulling him out of a flood swollen river and reviving him. Photo/Stephen Parker

Mr Stephenson said he was lucky Mr Toitoi, a prison warden, knew just what to do.

"If I had have been there by myself I would never have got out of it.

"He'll get thanked, he really will. I just wouldn't be here otherwise."

Mr Stephenson said he had spent the past few nights in hospital thinking of ways to do that.

"I don't know really what I'll say to them. I repair broken rifle stocks, so I can help that way, but that's not enough."

It's the second time he's cheated death. Seventeen years ago he was given a few months to live after cancer in his ear. While he lost the right ear, he won the battle.

"They'd told me to go and live every day to the max."

He plans to keep doing just that - and said the lure of the deer and the roar would see him back out in the bush just as soon as he was able to.

In the meantime his son, who is also called Tom, has walked into the bush to thank those who helped his dad and hear their side of the story.

His dad's hunting mates had told them it "could have happened to anyone".

He said at the end of the day it wasn't about his dad, but the efforts they were putting in trying to help those trapped further up the road.