Fun day out ends in tragedy for group of school mates.

Tracey Woolley's voice is barely above a whisper as she answers the question. Her voice cracks but her message is resolute.

At her side, 18-year-old Denver Woolley listens as his mum talks about meeting the three dads in a rescue helicopter who saved her son's life, but were unable to save his twin.

Denver has his own story to tell, of an hours-long fight for survival in raging water, logs the size of trucks hurtling past, and a ponga tree that skinned his arms and saved his life, but for now he's quiet.

This isn't a story about one teenage boy. It's about five, and what happened when an everyday summer outing turned to tragedy on February 3.

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Three — Denver and friends Nathan Phillips and Jason Lee — would survive when a sudden downpour turned the normally placid creek below Waitākere Ranges' swimming hole Cascade Falls into a terrifying torrent of debris-choked water.

Two boys would not.

One was Sosiveta "Sosi" Turagaiviu, described by his friends as kind and generous, by his school as a keen basketballer, and by his pastor as a hard worker who toiled at KFC so he could buy a car he wouldn't live to drive.

The other was Mitch Woolley, Tracey and her husband Mike's son, and Denver's twin brother.

Twins Denver, left, and Mitch Woolley. Mitch died and Denver was winched to safety after they and three friends were caught in flash flooding at Auckland's Cascade Falls in February. Photo / Supplied
Twins Denver, left, and Mitch Woolley. Mitch died and Denver was winched to safety after they and three friends were caught in flash flooding at Auckland's Cascade Falls in February. Photo / Supplied

When Denver last week met the Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter crew who saved his life it was to say thank you and to put names to faces he didn't — in the trauma of the rescue — remember very much.

"It was good just to see them," the teen says, joining his mum in speaking publicly about the tragedy for the first time.

His mum also wanted to put a face to "those anonymous people that go about their duty" for an organisation she has long supported, and is now sharing her family's story for the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust's new chopper annual appeal.

"You never actually believe, or even hope, that it will be you that needs them. It's hit personally this time, so it's nice to know that it's real people and they actually wanted to meet us as well.

"That [rescuing Denver] meant something to them."

What did it mean to her?

"Everything," she says softly.

"I couldn't imagine life if he had gone as well."

'We'd had a really fun day'

It was a typical teenage boy kind of day, that first Saturday in February.

Friends. Fun. Food. More fun.

Mitch was the driving force behind the boys' day together. Denver and their friends were back at Massey High School, but he was a working man now.

The previous November he'd started a trial as a marine systems engineer; the week before the tragedy he accepted a permanent offer of employment, Woolley says.

"They'd actually decided within the first week he'd started that they wanted him in the job. The trial was making sure it's what he wanted."

When Mitch said he'd shout Denver and three friends paint balling, his mum wasn't surprised — even though it cost hundreds.

"All his first pays were about other people. He'd bought me a pair of greenstone earrings and the day before [he died] he'd bought Denver an exercise thing that he'd always liked.

"He was on a trainee wage, so he wasn't earning very much, but it was all about doing things for his mates and spoiling his family."

Woolley was with the boys that last Saturday morning.

"We'd had a really fun day."

From left, Jason Lee, Mitch Woolley, Sosi Turagaiviu, Denver Woolley and Nathan Phillips, pictured at a paintball park hours before the tragedy. Photo / Supplied
From left, Jason Lee, Mitch Woolley, Sosi Turagaiviu, Denver Woolley and Nathan Phillips, pictured at a paintball park hours before the tragedy. Photo / Supplied

Returning to the family home in Scenic Dr by afternoon, she fixed the teens lunch.

Paint balling might've been enough adventure for those without the rocket-fuel energy of five 17-year-old boys.

But it was month three of the country's hottest summer on record — that day temperatures nudged 25C in Auckland, and it was typically sticky.

Nearby, just 2km as the crow flies seaward over well-watered West Auckland bush, was sweet, cool relief.

Millions of years of uplift and erosion had worked together to form a nature's own plunge pool, fed by a waterfall tucked neatly inside a gorge and giving the resulting oasis its name, Cascade Falls.

It was 4pm when Woolley dropped the teens at Falls Rd car park, 15 minutes walk from the waterfall.

She'd be back in an hour, Woolley told them as they set off, the sun burning hot on their backs.

"I went down [and] got Lotto, drove up home and the rain started. It was really heavy, so I drove straight back down and it was ... disaster. Even driving down from Scenic Dr the water running off the land was just so sudden and so heavy."

The worried mum was back at the car park by about 4.20pm, but she could do nothing.

'The water ... just washed us in'

Denver was swimming when it started raining. He wasn't alarmed.

"We were in the water already and we didn't mind. It was just a little bit more water."

But it got cold, and Denver noticed more water coming out of the waterfall. They decided to leave, but there was a problem.

While Mitch and Sosi were on the track-side of the swimming hole, Denver, Nathan and Jason were on the opposite side.

The cliff behind their ledge was too steep to climb. And the water in front of them was rising "so quick", Denver says.

"In three minutes it went from the bottom of my feet to the top of my ankles."

MetService communications manager Deborah Gray says the nearest gauge to Cascade Falls recorded 43.5mm in the hour to 5pm, with 71.5mm over the whole day.

Average February rainfall for Auckland Airport is 68mm.

Nathan was the first to fall in, Denver says.

Mitch and Sosi ran after him. Denver wouldn't see either alive again.

The tragedy occurred at Cascade Falls, in West Auckland. Image / Google Maps
The tragedy occurred at Cascade Falls, in West Auckland. Image / Google Maps

On the rapidly disappearing ledge barely a minute passed before he and Jason were "pinned against the wall".

"We had nowhere to go. The only way to go was to fall in. Jason said he was scared and I was trying to be brave and all, but I knew it could go one of two ways — we get washed in and we end up ok or we get washed in and that's it.

"I thought we were gonna die right then."

Within 10 minutes the inevitable occurred.

"The water just didn't stop rising, it just washed us in."

Immediately separated, Denver next saw Jason — who made his own way to safety — at Waitākere Hospital.

Nathan, who fell first, would escape the floodwaters, raising the alarm when he flagged down two tourists. They drove to nearby Waitākere Golf Club, left him in the car with the heater blasting and got club manager Josh Ritchie to call 111.

It was 5.15pm.

As emergency services, including the Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter, scrambled, Denver was in a fight for his life.

The ponga tree

That fight started with a fortuitous decision.

After the floodwaters washed him from the waterfall ledge, he went far and fast — he estimates at least 600m in 40 seconds.

"It was like ... whitewater rafting. Times three. [There were] logs coming down the size of trucks and wiping out every tree around me.

"There's no words that could describe the amount of power that that water had."

Despite the force of the water, Denver managed to swim to a ponga tree and wrap his arms around it.

The tree stayed standing. He stayed holding.

Clad only in board shorts, he was "the coldest I've ever been".

He was also in pain — the water had knocked him around badly, thumping his head and back, the latter so badly he feared it was broken.

Even the ponga was an unforgiving saviour.

The dense crown and rough fern leaf fronds of our national symbol do not a soft embrace give.

"I had these big sandpaper marks all down my arms."

Ground searchers were hampered by serious damage to the Cascade Falls track, including a washout of the access bridge, on the day of the tragedy. File photo / Brittany Keogh
Ground searchers were hampered by serious damage to the Cascade Falls track, including a washout of the access bridge, on the day of the tragedy. File photo / Brittany Keogh

Despite the pain and the fear and the cold, Denver clung to the tree fern for more than two hours. He doesn't know how he held on to hope in such dire circumstances.

"I just tackled every minute as it came."

Some were harder than others. Again he thought, "I'm going to die".

But then below the water level dropped, and above the whomp whomp whomp of helicopter blades cut the air.

Help gave hope, albeit initially paired with crushing disappointment.

"I thought they'd seen me [and] they were winching down, because they were above me for about 30s. And then they started flying off. I was covered by the tree I was hanging on to.

"It was pretty hard, [but] they came back. That was the main thing."

Providence was about to shine on Denver again.

'We're going to get you out of here. Hold on'

Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter crewman Ati Wynyard always hopes for the best, but
sometimes the best can only be finding bodies, giving closure.

He thought February 3 was going to be one of those days.

"The speed of that water, I can't say we were confident we were going to find someone. I actually thought we were going to be looking for bodies. There was so much debris and we just thought 'no one's going to survive this'."

Their worst fears were confirmed at 6.40pm when Sosi's body was found in the water under a Bethells Rd bridge, several kilometres away.

As well as Denver, Mitch also remained missing — ground searchers would find his body close to the waterfall 70 minutes later — and those in the rescue helicopter had to make a decision.

Use their last 10 minutes of fuel to look for more bodies where Sosi was, or again search Cascade Falls.

Each had their own thoughts, so they asked incident controller, Sergeant Dene Duthie, Wynyard says.

He told them to fly to Cascade Falls again.

Back at the ponga tree, Denver couldn't hear the helicopter anymore. But the water had receded enough to open a partial escape route — a rock he used to reach a bank.

He'd walked 30m when the helicopter came back.

"They saw me. It was a good feeling."

The decision to return likely saved Denver's life, Wynyard said.

"If he'd said 'no, stay down the bottom', which was 6km away, we wouldn't have found Denver. We would've had to go find gas, come back and we would've run out of daylight."

For Denver the situation had improved beyond measure, but the three men on the helicopter — Wynyard, intensive care paramedic Russell Clark and pilot Rob Arrowsmith — could still see a whole lot of danger.

Cascade Falls had swollen to look like "Huka Falls in a picturesque bushy valley" when they first flew over, Arrowsmith says, but the water had receded by several metres when they returned within half an hour.

He had "strongly recommended" Duthie make the call for the helicopter to again search the waterfall area, Arrowsmith says.

It was a life-saving call, but Denver was still in trouble — when found at 7.15pm he was in waist-deep water against a tree, with the main flow to one side and water between him and a bank, cutting him off.

The crew had to make a decision fast.

For Clark, who earlier wondered if the atrocious weather would allow them to get airborne at all, leaving Denver and returning later was not an option.

"You never give up hope, but just in the back of your mind you're starting to think 'this isn't going to end well' so when Arrows [Rob Arrowsmith] spotted him, it was like 'Oh God, we've actually found this guy'.

"By this stage we were getting really low on fuel so we made a decision really quickly based on where he was that we had to get him out."
As Arrowsmith hovered in driving rain and gusty wind at a height of 60m, Clark was winched down under strict instructions from Wynyard not to unhook.

"If something came down the river and wiped them out we would've probably ended up chasing two people down the river. If they'd got jammed under a dam or anything then that's it, lights out," Wynyard says.

"The three of us are fathers so on that day, I won't say we go the extra distance to the point it's unsafe, but there's a lot more concentration, 'let's put a bit more into this'."

Denver Woolley is winched to safety by Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter intensive care paramedic Russell Clark on February 3. Denver was caught in flash flooding in West Auckland. Photo / Supplied
Denver Woolley is winched to safety by Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter intensive care paramedic Russell Clark on February 3. Denver was caught in flash flooding in West Auckland. Photo / Supplied

Going down was "pretty hair-raising", Clark says.

But there could be no doubt it was the right decision when he saw Denver's face.

"You could tell he was absolutely frightened, he was fatigued, he was shivering."

Because of Denver's condition, instructions were simple and direct.

"Basically 'get your arms up, get the strop on', make him secure and tell him 'We're going to get you out of here. Hold on'.

"It was all over in seconds."

Denver was so weak his arms flopped helplessly, despite Clark's urging to hold the harness.

"I was putting all my power into it and I still let it go," he says.

But he was alive.

After a few hours' treatment in Waitākere Hospital for hypothermia and other injuries, his mum and dad took him home.

A life cut short

Mitch Woolley dreamed of travelling the world on superyachts as a marine systems engineer. Photo / Supplied
Mitch Woolley dreamed of travelling the world on superyachts as a marine systems engineer. Photo / Supplied

Mitch's family don't know what happened when he and Sosi ran to help Nathan. They'll never know the last moments of his life.

What they do know is the almost 18 years they shared with their "funny, loud, energetic and really loving and caring" boy.

They know his dreams of travelling the world as a marine systems engineer on superyachts and they know all the things he wanted to make as a passionate hobbyist blacksmith.

"We were being made to put a furnace in at home and he'd found all the bits and had plans of what he was going to make," Woolley says.

They even know the movies Mitch wanted to watch, among them Avengers: Infinity War, released 11 weeks after his death.

Denver has his life to lead, but wants to fulfil some of his brother's dreams, watching the Marvel Comics sci-fi fantasy among them, he says.

Most of all, Mitch's family know how proud they are of him.

"He was just so happy and he'd just changed since he'd started work, he'd grown up," Woolley says.

"He had the world at his feet."

Aftermath

It's a different life now, but there are moments of grace.

The two mothers who lost sons share a bond others cannot, and talk often, Woolley says.

"[Sosi's mum] calls me her sister."

Tracey Woolley lost her son, Mitch, when flash flooding struck Cascade Falls, West Auckland, in February. Mitch's twin brother, Denver, survived. Photo / Doug Sherring
Tracey Woolley lost her son, Mitch, when flash flooding struck Cascade Falls, West Auckland, in February. Mitch's twin brother, Denver, survived. Photo / Doug Sherring

There are moments of gratitude, too, for the support and love from those they know and those they don't, from emergency responders to family to strangers in the car park at the worst.

They could "never even begin to thank or acknowledge" all, she says.

"This is an opportunity to say that we've appreciated it."

And then there's the rescue helicopter crew, fathers all, who saved more lives than one that day.

"Because what we're going through is pretty rough," Woolley says.

"But it could've been a whole lot worse."

HOW TO HELP

The Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust is fundraising as part of its New Chopper Annual Appeal.

The trust wants to buy two new, replacement rescue helicopters and $80,000 has already been raised through the Million Dollar Mission.

Another $2.9 million is needed and the aim of the latest appeal is to raise at least 10 per cent - or $290,000 - towards this.

Donations can be made by calling (09) 950 7204 or online at rescuehelicopter.org.nz