Key Points:

When search and rescue volunteers Terry Blumhardt and Rob Macdonald responded to a call about three missing students in the bush, they hoped to find them cold, tired and ready to go home.

But, several hours later as they sat overlooking a sharp bend in the swollen river, the men knew that was not going to happen. They could not give families the news they so desperately wanted.

It was just on dinner time on Tuesday night when the call for help came in. Both men set off from their Turangi homes for the swollen Mangatepopo River where 10 students, a teacher and instructor had been swept away.

By the time they arrived it was dark. Five of the group had already been found alive. Four were dead.

It was up to members of Turangi Search and Rescue to assist their Taumarunui colleagues in the hunt for the three who were still missing.

Mr Blumhardt and Mr Macdonald, who are both experienced searchers and have backgrounds in river rafting, were partnered up.

"By the time we went into the field the weather had largely cleared," said Mr Blumhardt.


But, while the storm that had caused so much chaos had cleared, it had left behind a hazardous terrain that was "wet, steep and slippery".

The river was by now starting to recede but still ran at "many times its normal velocity". Its loud and powerful roar was a constant reminder to searchers of the danger around them.

As the men carefully worked their way through darkened bush, mossy ferns and slippery undergrowth, they were looking for any clues to the missing group's whereabouts.

"We were searching for any sign of them, that sign might have included marks where an able-bodied person had exited the river, it might have included clothing that had been discarded or it might have included the person themselves.

"We were making a noise with whistles and shining torches around to attract anyone's attention but also for visibility. We had to do things in such a way that we did the job as completely as we could and as well as we could but still keep ourselves safe so we could still go around the next corner."

At times that meant leaving the sheer cliffs that dropped down to the river below and moving inland.

"It was awkward terrain to search," said Mr Blumhardt.

About an hour and a half into their search, during which they had covered roughly 800m, Mr Blumhardt and Mr Macdonald came to a tight bend with a whirlpool in the corner.

There they found the fifth victim floating in the water. Unable to do anything further, they radioed base from where a recovery team was sent in.

Until then the pair had worked their way through the bush focused on the job at hand, not allowing emotions to come into it. But eventually, emotions do creep in.

Although they did not find the person alive, the men are glad they were able to do the next best thing - recovering the body for the family.

"Regardless of the outcome, it's a person you are looking for," said Mr Blumhardt, "and that person has someone out there that wants them back. Hopefully [finding the body] starts the healing process a little bit sooner."