Huddling with her husband in their Puketapu shed, 76-year-old Margaret Smiley faced a choice as floodwaters steadily rose around them.
She could either wait and hope rescuers found them before they drowned, or she could risk her own life by swimming through the strong current to seek help.
Margaret, whose swimming ability is limited to dog-paddling, chose the latter.
She left behind Richard, her husband of 56 years who could not swim, in the belief that doing nothing meant certain death.
“If I was going to save Richard’s life, I had to do it,” Margaret said. “If I’d stayed any longer in the shed, we would have both drowned.”
Margaret’s story was among many heroic rescue stories the Herald heard from the Puketapu community today.
The village, west of Napier, was among the worst-hit areas as Cyclone Gabrielle hit Hawke’s Bay.
When flooding began yesterday, Margaret and Richard sought refuge in their shed. Even as the rain intensified, neither suspected how high the water would rise.
They tried calling 111, but were told they were on their own.
“A guy came on [the line] and I told him then that we had to be evacuated and he said, ‘This is not going to happen’, and I said, ‘You have to evacuate us, we’re both in our 70s’, and he just said, ‘Get on the roof of your house’, and that was it.”
Standing atop furniture with only three feet of space left in the rafters, Margaret made the decision to leave and get help.
The nearby Tutaekuri River had burst its banks. The floodwaters outside had climbed higher than the apple trees in Margaret’s orchard that bordered her house.
Sticking to her dog-paddle style, Margaret was forced to duck and dive under the wires along the treeline, navigating her way through roughly 20 rows.
Fortunately, neighbour Allan had seen Margaret and could watch her as she slowly swam through what had become an underwater orchard.
“By the time I got to the end of the trees, I’d had it, I was exhausted, but then of course there was a torrent of water running through,” she said.
Margaret was taken to safety by a man on a jetski, but she wouldn’t rest until someone went back for Richard.
“I was pleading with them ... they wanted to take me to the medical centre and I was shaking like a leaf, but I said, ‘No, just go back please because Richard’s not going to live’.”
After he watched his wife wade into raging floodwaters, Richard estimates it was about 90 minutes before he heard the sound of a jetski approaching the shed.
He yelled out, banging on the shed ceiling until the rescuers understood where he was.
“They said, ‘Right, we’ve got to leave you but don’t worry we’ll be back in two minutes’. Well, that was a long two minutes.
“I had two phones in my pocket and I couldn’t say [goodbye] to anyone.”
The rescuers returned with equipment able to cut through the roof and pulled Richard out.
Despite the risk she faced, Margaret was adamant she never once believed she was going to die.
“No, never!” she exclaimed. “I had to do it for Richard. If hadn’t done it, Richard would’ve drowned and I’m telling you, without a word of a lie, he would’ve drowned if we hadn’t got to him when we did.”
Still wearing borrowed clothes from her brother-in-law, Margaret observed the damage to her home.
Her driveway was hidden under a river of sludge and silt. A garden full of beautiful white hydrangeas had been reduced to a garden of mud.
She hadn’t yet ventured inside her home but was under no illusion as to what she would find.
“I know it’s going to be a mess. I’ve got no doubt.”
Margaret said her thoughts were with her community and the long recovery it now faced.
“Just to see the whole of Puketapu area, it’s devastating, it’s heartbreaking.”