A teenager fought to stay afloat long enough for a 5-year-old girl to be rescued before exhaustion took hold and he drowned in a Central Otago river.

At about midday on December 10, 2016, Ben Gardner went down to the Kawarau River near the Bannockburn Inlet with his partner, Courtney Shaw, her parents and the couple's 5-year-old niece.

The "strong swimmer", according to his mum Maxine Hankey, decided to wade out to a pontoon in the river about 30 metres out with the young girl on his back.

However, about halfway to the pontoon, Gardner called back to shore that the bottom of the river had "disappeared" and he "could not feel it".

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Kerry Stainton-Herbert was also at the Bannockburn Inlet with her grandson.

She said: "I heard the young man in the water yell, 'Help!'… He then yelled in a panic[ked] voice, 'It's deep and I can't swim.' ... I ran closer, I could see the young man in trouble, I yelled, 'Help him he is in trouble'."

Ben Gardner drowned after making sure a five-year-old girl was safe.
Ben Gardner drowned after making sure a five-year-old girl was safe.

Courtney's father, Glenn Shaw, then started swimming out to rescue the pair.

"I got into a bit of trouble myself as I had jeans on," he later told police.

"I managed to get to Ben. He gave me [my niece]. I was calling out to [my wife] Sheree. She came in the water. Sheree got [our niece].

"I started swimming out to him. At some point I yelled at Ben to get on his back. I was getting dragged under ... I managed to get my jeans off. I tried to get back to Ben but I could not find him at that stage."

Stainton-Herbert ran to the road to get help and stopped a car being driven by Robert Horne.

Horne went to assist and dived under the water to look for Gardner but was unable to see
anything. He asked a friend to get his diving gear so that he could have a better look.

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"I started diving, my dive computer said my total dive time was 22 minutes," he told police afterwards.

"While diving, the visibility was just over arm's length. I had to surface twice to work out where I was. I was doing a zig-zag pattern to try and find him. I was thinking that if I did not find him in the next couple of minutes I was going to surface and ask for another tank ... I found Ben face down in the lake weed, he was not tangled up. He was approximately at a depth of 4.8 metres."

Horne brought Gardner back to shore where a paramedic confirmed he was dead.

Today, Coroner Marcus Elliott released his findings into Gardner's death.

Some of those who were present considered the weeds may have contributed to the drowning, the coroner said.

Sheree Shaw said: "I think the weeds had a lot to do with it, it makes it difficult to kick, they get caught around your ankles. I remember Glenn screaming to me about the
weeds."

However, Coroner Elliott said the evidence indicates Gardner experienced difficulties when he reached a point where he was unable to touch the riverbed, but the weeds may have also affected his ability to remain afloat.

"The water became too deep for Gardner to continue walking on the riverbed. It became necessary to swim or paddle to remain afloat," he said.

"Gardner was screaming to Mr Shaw about the weeds, indicating that they affected his ability to remain afloat or to get back to an area where he could stand up."

Gardner was also bearing the additional weight of the five-tear-old.

"Gardner fought to remain afloat until he handed [the girl] to Mr Shaw," Coroner Elliott said.

"However, he expended so much energy in doing so that he was unable to keep himself afloat for long enough to be rescued himself. He sank into the water and drowned."

Contact Energy also holds a resource consent to control the flow of water in and out
of Lake Dunstan, which flows to the Kawarau River.

The water level at Lake Dunstan on that day had reached its peak at 5.00am and then slowly reduced over the course of the day.

Coroner Elliott said the changing water level was unlikely to have been a factor in Gardner's death.

The coroner said, although there was some signage in the area, it did not appear there were any signs about the risks associated with swimming in the area.

"The presence of the pontoon implied that it was suitable to swim in the area, but there was no signage to remind people of the risks, and no warning that the water was too deep to reach the pontoon on foot or that weeds were growing in the area," he said.

He recommended the Central Otago District Council erect signs in prominent locations on the shore in the vicinity of the pontoon, warning of the water depth, the presence of weeds, the risks associated with swimming in the area and the need to supervise children.