Today marks exactly 10 years since 20-year-old Sonny Fai entered the water at Bethells Beach, west of Auckland - and never returned. The promising Warriors player was presumed drowned after rushing to help his younger brother and cousins who were caught in a rip current. His body has never been found. In this extract from the award-winning multimedia piece published last year, Dylan Cleaver and Dana Johannsen recount the final moments of the remarkable life and tragic death of Sonny Fai.

Gillesbie Fai locks his gaze on the arm of the couch.

Losing his thoughts in the intricate pattern on the fabric, he sits with hands clasped between knees, like he's trying to withdraw into himself.

Beside him sits his sister, Colleen.

Advertisement

She is reliving the confusion, panic and helplessness of watching her two brothers drowning in the Bethells Beach surf on a tranquil January evening.

Only Gillesbie made it back to shore that day.

To see him sitting here nervously ten years later is to see a young man who has never made peace with that fact.

Gillesbie, who prefers to go by Lesi, is back in Auckland for the first time since he moved to Australia with his family six years ago.

Back in Mangere, just a short walk from the weatherboard state house where he was raised with his six siblings.

Back nestled among the familiar landmarks of Walter Massey Park - home of the Mangere East Hawks - and De La Salle College.

In this densely populated, diverse corner of Auckland, he is back where memories both comfort and sting.

Lesi left for Sydney when he was in his teens, he returns a father.

His son, just 15 months yet robust and mobile, joins Lesi, bringing light and momentary levity to the room.

Above them on the wall of Colleen's Viola Ave home white lettering spells out the word "Aiga", the Samoan word for family.

Sonny Fai at a Warriors training session in May 2008. Photo / Photosport
Sonny Fai at a Warriors training session in May 2008. Photo / Photosport

Family was everything to Sonny Fai.

Well, that's not quite true.

There was room for church, for his Mitsubishi Lancer, for a burgeoning back-street tattooing practice and for league, lots of league.

But underpinning it all was aiga. Always, even if it meant getting yourself into a situation that was both metaphorically and literally over your head.

Lesi says he is only here today because his older brother went back to save a 13-year-old from the relentless churn of the west coast waves.

"Went back to save me."

For Don Mann, the story of Sonny Fai's death doesn't start when he receives a discomfiting call from a young Ben Matulino as he's getting ready for bed.

It doesn't start later that night, when he arrives at 12 Courtenay Cres and sits dumbfounded among Fai's relatives, trying to process the fear and confusion around him.

It doesn't start the next morning, January 5, 2009, the first official day of pre-season training when, as the Warriors football manager, he has to communicate to the players their mate is missing, presumed drowned, and help senior staff decide what to do next.

For Mann, an ex-detective, the story starts on the day before the Warriors administrative staff broke for Christmas.

"There is a function you have to complete by the 31st of December," he recalls.

"You have to submit all the names of the players that you want in the NRL Group Life policy. Each NRL club nominates their top 25 players. My last task before breaking up for the Christmas break was to submit our 25 players, and I remember putting Sonny on that list."

Fai was a fringe first-grader, so it was in some respects an arbitrary decision but Mann knew what most good judges at the club did: Fai was ready for a breakthrough year.

Mann's decision will give the large Samoan family a small degree of financial security.

It will enable the Fais to leave Mangere East and relocate to Australia.

One thing it couldn't do was turn back time and change a simple decision that Sonny made on that cloudless day.

"It was just a normal Sunday. We weren't doing much and then Sonny brought up going to the beach," Lesi says.

"We were just like, 'Oh yeah, let's go,' and a few of our cousins went along as well."

A few short hours later, the extended family's lives had changed irrevocably and a rugby league club was left devastated.

The Warriors have enjoyed the odd good year among the ordinary since that day, but the club remains haunted by his loss.

In a Sliding Doors world, Fai would have been at his peak as a player. He would possibly be remodelling his game from a devastating edge runner to a forward more at home in the middle of the park.

He would have been approaching 200 games, injury permitting, and his work ethic and unbreakably cheerful disposition would remain an inspiration to young players making their way at the club.

Sonny Fai had a promising career ahead of him. Photo / Photosport
Sonny Fai had a promising career ahead of him. Photo / Photosport

"He'd still be here. I don't think we'd ever let him go," says Jerome Ropati, the former Kiwis and Warriors centre who now works on the club's coaching staff.

"I wouldn't be surprised if he was captain.

"For a young guy he wasn't afraid to [voice] his opinions. That is what probably separates him from Benny Matulino - he's a great player but he doesn't say too much. Sonny Fai, he liked to express himself."

Ropati brings up Matulino not just because he was a youth team contemporary of Fai, but because they were best friends, inseparable almost. They shared a Samoan heritage, roomed together on trips and even shared hair straighteners.

It was Matulino who the panicked Fai family first contacted when Sonny went missing.

It was Matulino, who struggled to look older authority figures in the eye let alone communicate with them, who hung up on that call and nervously dialled the number of the Warriors' manager of football operations.

Mann was looking forward to an early night.

Monday was the first day of pre-season training and he knew he'd need to get an early start to get the House of Warriors in order before players started arriving.

He took the call.

Matulino mumbled something about the Fai family contacting him to say Sonny was missing.

He had no details and at that point, Mann thought he was dealing with a misunderstanding rather than anything sinister.

"And then, I dunno," Mann says, "I kept thinking about it. I said to my wife Louise, 'That was Ben, he never rings me.' Ben is a lovely, quiet young man, I don't think he had ever rung me about anything.

"I thought, 'There's something about this'."

Jerome Ropati in front of a picture of Sonny Fai at Mt Smart Stadium. Photo / Greg Bowker
Jerome Ropati in front of a picture of Sonny Fai at Mt Smart Stadium. Photo / Greg Bowker

So he called him back and although Matulino had precious few details other than Fai appeared to be missing, Mann didn't like the way he sounded.

So he told Louise, also an ex-cop, that he was heading to the Fais' home in Mangere East.

Matulino called again.

He had gleaned from the family that they had been at Bethells Beach and Sonny hadn't come home.

"I wasn't quite sure what missing meant - missed the car, went missing in the bush? I actually didn't think of drowning."

Bryn Grant-Mackie was celebrating the end of his first shift as a lifeguard at Bethells Beach on that fateful day. Photo / Greg Bowker
Bryn Grant-Mackie was celebrating the end of his first shift as a lifeguard at Bethells Beach on that fateful day. Photo / Greg Bowker

What Mann didn't know on that drive south from Auckland's eastern suburbs, was that a text had started to circulate among some of the players.

It painted a grimmer picture than that of a kid who had carelessly missed his ride home.

"I can't remember exactly who sent the text but I do remember getting it," Ropati says.

"It read something like: 'Sonny went out swimming, never came back in'."

A coroner's inquest in August, 2009, blandly states that Fai is believed to have drowned and that no foul play was involved.

Under "Circumstances of Death", Judge Neil MacLean, the chief coroner, wrote: "Sonny Fai died on Sunday the 4th of January at Bethells Beach, when he succumbed to the surf conditions and drowned, despite extensive and intensive efforts at recovery."

The only recommendation was that the surf club and Waitakere Council, in conjunction with Telecom, pursue the possibility of installing a publicly accessible landline at the beach.

Even with the benefit of hindsight, this would not have saved Fai.

The decision to go to the beach was Fai's. He made the call on a day where a southeasterly breeze prevented the temperature ever getting beyond the low 20s, although it felt much warmer.

His older sister, Lalelei Fai Tupulua, who, at 10 years his senior, was more like a mother-figure to Fai, had a nagging sense of unease when Fai came to her asking for the keys to the van.

"Normally on a Sunday afternoon me and my husband would take him for runs, like we go to Maraetai Beach and he'll just run the sand there," she says.

"That was the first Sunday that we didn't take him. I don't know why, but I just hate myself for not taking him.

"But he just begged and begged, and we ended up giving him our car keys."

Fai wanted to take his younger siblings and his cousins, who were visiting from Australia, to Bethells to show them how the Warriors trained.

Colleen and Lesi were used to accompanying their brother on his missions.

He would often drag them down to Massey Park at 5am to watch him run laps; one time he even convinced them to join him in the Warriors gym.

Bethells was a new experience.

"We had never been," says Colleen.

"If we were to go to the beach we would usually go to Mission Bay or Maraetai."

This lack of familiarity would prove to be a critical component of the tragedy.

The Fais, after what Lesi says seemed like a drive that took forever, looked not to the water first but the hills.

The Bethells dunes are legendary.

They shapeshift over time as wind and foot traffic take sand from one place and deposit it elsewhere but one thing remains constant: they are more fun to go down than up.

For the Warriors, the dunes have long represented a special kind of hell.

Each pre-season they conduct a session there. It's summer, the sun is hot, the iron-sand is hotter and there's no sympathy from the devils with whistles.

"They will take you to some dark places, those sand dunes," says Ropati.

"You don't only look up, you look everywhere else - 360 degrees to different gradient hills, lengths, different depths. It is torture. No matter where you go the trainers will find some way to torture you. There's probably five or six hills and we did repetitions of each.

"Legs burning, lungs burning. You don't want to talk to anyone. But the thing with the dunes is it teaches you how to function in those dark times. It teaches you how to function under extreme fatigue."

Warriors players have trained on the sand dunes at Bethells Bay for years. Photo / Photosport
Warriors players have trained on the sand dunes at Bethells Bay for years. Photo / Photosport

Fai didn't need to run those dunes that Sunday, he'd be doing them soon enough anyway, but for 60 minutes he did. It wasn't to impress his coaches.

He did it for no other reason than he thought it would make him a fitter player, a better player.

"Knowing Sonny… he would have pushed the limits to really fatigue himself and get ready for pre-season," Ropati says.

Leaving the dunes for the beach, Fai would have been exhausted.

His legs would have felt like concrete columns and his heart rate and core temperature would have been greatly elevated.

The shimmering water would have looked like salvation.

Those weary legs weren't prepared for the final, desperately unlucky mistake of Fai's life.

Scanning the sea, he and his family chose a calm patch of water that seemed more inviting than the rolling, dumpy waves that were breaking on either side.

"At the time I didn't know what a rip was," says Lesi, an assertion repeated by Colleen.

As currents move on and off west coast beaches, rips form around low spots or breaks in sandbars.

The water flows away from shore and does so disconcertingly swiftly.

Quickly you can find yourself further from the beach than anticipated. Good swimmers, those experienced in rip conditions, know the worst thing to do is panic and try to fight against the current.

Lesi was not a good swimmer, nor was he experienced. Neither was his brother.

"Sonny, being from the southside, didn't know too much about the [west coast] beaches," says Ropati.

Strong swimmers are told to swim sideways, parallel to the shore, because rips are rarely more than 25m wide.

Poor swimmers are advised to keep their heads above water and let the rip take you to its natural end, normally just beyond the breakers.

From there you make a decision to either tread water and wait to be rescued, or swim sideways away from the rip before attempting to make your way back to shore.

The Fais knew none of this theory. They fought the current and, heavy-legged and tired, were quickly overwhelmed.

As they were dragged further away from the shore, the group, which also included Sonny's cousin Tone Lafoga and his father, Falaimo, became separated.

The older men managed to fight their way to safety, but Lesi, at 13 the youngest in the group, was in big trouble.

"Sonny ended up swimming back and I can remember he was telling me, 'Just keep swimming, you gotta do this'," Lesi recalls, shifting his large frame uncomfortably.

"He was trying to push me up. I was drowning, I kept going under the water. He kept saying, 'Go with this wave now,' and I didn't go because I was like, 'I can't swim.'

"He goes, 'You better do it'."

Gillesbie 'Lesi' and Colleen Fai. Photo / Greg Bowker
Gillesbie 'Lesi' and Colleen Fai. Photo / Greg Bowker

Lesi recalls only snippets of what happened next. He remembers being pushed through the water by his brother before being wiped out by another wave. When he resurfaced he was certain Sonny was right behind him.

And then, darkness.

"I kept passing out, I was swallowing so much water and I was like, 'I think I'm going to die now'."

Colleen, who was watching in terror, fills in the gaps.

She watched Sonny and Lesi, overcome by panic and exhaustion, struggling to stay afloat in the surf before they disappeared from sight.

The next few minutes were a blur of chaos and confusion. No one knew what to do. One cousin raced to the lifeguard tower to find it was locked for the day, others stayed in the shallows desperately scanning the waves for the brothers.

"I was screaming because I was so scared. My cousins, my aunties, everyone was crying," says Colleen.

Drawn to the rocks to the right of the lifeguard tower, Colleen noticed someone floating lifelessly to shore.

Lesi.

The rip at Bethells can split both left and right and this is what it did, pushing the cousins left and Sonny and Lesi to the right towards the northern end of the beach.

Colleen pulled her unconscious brother from the water.

"I was slapping his face and I was like, 'Les, Lesi, where's Sonny?' He kept saying, 'He's behind me, he's behind me.' It took him about five minutes to fully regain consciousness and when he saw that we were all screaming and crying he asked what was wrong."

Hearing the news that Sonny had not returned was enough to shock Lesi back to his feet. His cousins had to restrain him.

"I wanted to run back into the water. I didn't care if I died," he says.

The coroner's ruling in August 2009 cleared the way for an insurance pay-out from the NRL, which helped Fai's parents into a home of their own in Mangere, but it could not bring peace to the family.

A year later Sonny's father Falelua walked away from it all, packing up and moving to Sydney, and soon the family followed.

"When Sonny went missing, Mum and Dad, a piece of them just went missing too. It was like a big part of our family just died," Lalelei explains.

"It broke our family, but I think it broke Dad the most. We're still trying to pick up the pieces. It's been nine years and we're all still trying to move on."

The plaque installed at the entrance to Bethells beach. Photo / Photosport
The plaque installed at the entrance to Bethells beach. Photo / Photosport

In many ways, the club is too.

Eventually, all those who knew Fai well and even those merely acquainted will leave the Warriors. Matulino this year will take the field in a Wests Tigers jersey, playing once more under the tutelage of Cleary.

Mann has long moved on, working these days for Auckland Council events arm Ateed. Price is retired and living back in his native Australia.

Those like Becht and Ropati remain, but nothing lasts forever.

The next group that comes along will learn about Fai. They may marvel at his bench press exploits, but the connection will not be as strong - it can't be.

But the family will ensure that, in spirit and name at least, he lives on.

Remember back to the lounge in Viola Ave. To Lesi. To his son, the boy who lit up the room with his ready smile and playfulness.

The boy whose very existence owes everything to the man who saved his father.

He has a short name that says an awful lot.

His name is Sonny Fai.

A smiling Sonny Fai (centre back row) and his Under-15 teammates. Photo / Supplied
A smiling Sonny Fai (centre back row) and his Under-15 teammates. Photo / Supplied