Paritutu Tragedy, photos Paritutu Tragedy, photos CREDIT: Fairfax NZ
Paritutu Tragedy, photos Paritutu Tragedy, photos CREDIT: Fairfax NZ
Paritutu Tragedy, photos Paritutu Tragedy, photos CREDIT: Fairfax NZ
VIGIL: Paritutu Tragedy Vigil held VIGIL: Paritutu Tragedy Vigil held CREDIT: FairfaxNZ

Paritutu Tragedy: A year on, 'straight away I knew'

Thursday 8 August 2013, 6:47AM
By NP Linked Taranaki


"At 4pm the radio news came on and I heard them say 'breaking news, three students are missing in New Plymouth' and staight away I knew, it was my friends at Paritutu." 

Taranaki Search and Rescue police Sergeant Andrew Ross, catching up on filing at his desk was 4 kilometres away from the unfolding tragedy.

"One of the guys from the search and rescue squad stuck his head in and said: There are people in the water at Paritutu. I think I said: What?"

He remembers looking out the window to the sea, remembers it as wild. The swell was running at 4 metres, peaking at high tide at 1.30pm. The weather map of the North Island that day was peppered with black clouds and lightning bolts. There had been warnings about the possibility of hail storms.

"I was in a bit of disbelief it had happened on that day," Ross said.

"My initial reaction was, what were they doing out there?"

He immediately called the Taranaki rescue helicopter and spoke with volunteer crew member Andy Cronin. Returning from a patient transfer to Auckland's Starship children's hospital, they were 18 minutes away from New Plymouth. They would have to refuel and pick up a winch operator before they could make it to Paritutu, he said.

Even then it could have already been too late.

Quite what happened on that Paritutu climbing trip which ended with three men in the water is still shrouded in secrecy.

Since the incident Topec (Taranaki Outdoor Pursuits and Education Centre), the organisation responsible for the group being there, has remained behind a wall of silence.

The content of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment investigation that resulted in Topec pleading guilty to three charges laid under health and safety regulations, has not been released. The details will come eventually. They cannot change the fatal fact that Spotswood College student Stephen Kahukaka-Gedye, a popular 17-year-old New Plymouth boy with one brother and two sisters, was swept off Paritutu and into the sea in front of his friend Campbell Shaw.

Moments before or after, Brazilian exchange student Felipe Melo, 17, who, on the eve of his planned return home one month before had convinced his parents to let him stay in New Zealand, was also torn from the rock.

The pair had been with two other boys metres ahead of the main party and their instructor Bryce Jourdain, 42, who had

moved his wife and two young children to Taranaki from Tauranga 18 months earlier.

As the leader of the group, Jourdain rushed to reach the two isolated boys. In the next few minutes he was either washed into the sea himself or jumped in to rescue Stephen and Felipe.

Pictures taken on the day show the Spotswood College group of nine international students and two local boys was horribly under-prepared for the trip. It was the middle of winter and just a few of them have coats.

Some are wearing jeans, others tracksuit pants. They have blue climbing helmets and harnesses around their waists. Despite being in a location where they were one stumble away from falling into a stretch of water known for dangerous currents and ferocious swells, none are wearing lifejackets.

What the students do wear are expressions of shock, terror and sheer numbness of desperate survival. At the same time as they huddled in helpless fear, dozens of people were scrambling to their rescue.

"The station just emptied," Ross said.

Police swarmed the wave-swept rocks of the breakwater behind the power station, looking for signs of the men. One after the other, ambulance crews arrived and began preparing for the worst. Two rescue boats roared out around the breakwater, along with a fishing boat and port support vessel.

They would arrive just before the rescue helicopter.

It was pure pandemonium, Ross said, by now at Civil Defence headquarters trying to co-ordinate the rescue.

"I was getting a lot of mixed messages. There was a lot of people talking on police radio about what was happening. I was getting messages that they could see a person they thought was the instructor," he said.

"Then a big swell came in and they didn't see them after that."

With huge waves booming into the rock and masses of white water, there was little chance to see or hear anything from land or sea. From the air was where they would find them.

"But we didn't see any sign of people in the water," said Cronin, who minutes before finding himself hovering above the surging water, had wolfed down two muesli bars and grabbed a wetsuit while the rescue helicopter refuelled at its hangar.

"For about 50 to 80 metres out from Paritutu the water was like a huge washing machine.

"It was pretty big."

He had reason to pay attention.

If there was someone down there, it was Cronin's job to jump in and get them. But, despite expanding their search to both the north and south of Paritutu, there was no sign of the men and after 15 minutes of frantic searching Ross retasked the helicopter with rescuing the students clinging to the rock.

By this time, about 2pm, Ross probably knew more than any individual at the scene. The group was from Topec, he knew they were mostly foreign students from Germany, Switzerland, Brazil and China, and he knew one boy had been swept into the sea and had managed to clamber back on to the rock. It was likely he would soon be suffering hypothermia. It was imperative he got them off the rock.

Each party member would have to be winched off individually and Cronin, a man six weeks away from becoming a first-time father, was at the end of the rope every time the dangerous manoeuvre was completed.

"Through the whole thing our job isn't to get through the how, what, where. It's to get on with the task," Cronin said.

"I had a wee moment when I was going back with the second student when I was bit miffed that they had come to your country and this is what happened.

"It's the sort of thing that pops up.

"But it pops up and you reconcile yourself with it and get on with it."

About the same time the helicopter was turning its attention to the students on the rock, Spotswood College principal Mark Bowden was sitting at his desk. He remembers a southwest wind was blowing and "scuddy fronts" were coming through. He knew he had two year 13 groups of students at Topec but he had not known one of those groups was at Paritutu or that three people had ended up in the water until his phone rang.

"I jumped straight in my car and headed down to Paritutu.

"I took one look at the sea and, being an old surfer from way back, I knew there was trouble."

As police guided him down the road behind the power station car park he saw the rescue helicopter winching a student from the rock.

"I remember thinking ‘hallelujah'.

"But once I got down there that was short lived," he said.

By about 4pm to 4.30pm everyone on the rock was off and either at or en route to hospital. Their ordeal was over but rescuers simply switched their efforts back to the three men in the water. Until nightfall the helicopter, the rescue boats, police and search and rescue volunteers scoured the area.

They found nothing.

"You always second-guess yourself. All the time.

"It makes you quite anxious.

"You are going to get scrutinised for the decisions you make," said rescue co-ordinator Ross, now retired from the police force. "I have thought about this job a lot and I am confident that we did everything we could to find these guys."

The search for the men carried on for another 19 days. It involved hundreds of volunteers, police, soldiers, the air force, navy and private helicopter searches paid for by oil companies AWE and Shell Todd. A New Plymouth company even ran computer programs to predict where the bodies might have drifted to.

The official police and search and rescue operation initially ended after 10 days, then one day later Felipe was found in the power station water intake, a stone's throw from where he was pulled into the sea.

His funeral was held at Spotswood College, half his ashes stayed in New Zealand, the other half returned to Brazil where friends and family have started a charitable institute in his name.

The bodies of Stephen and Bryce have not been found.

Topec, closed on the day the trio went missing, began taking school groups again less than three weeks later. Cleared by police of any criminal intent, in June director Steven Ralph and chairman David Grigg admitted blame for the deaths, pleading guilty to three charges stemming from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment investigation.

The centre faces a fine of up to $250,000 for each charge. How much it will have to pay will be known at sentencing on September 6.

For Mr Bowden the tragedy has led to a major and continuing review of how the school facilitates education outside the classroom.

The changes are a cultural shift in the school's approach to health and safety. It was less about ticking boxes, and more about teachers and pupils genuinely thinking through every activity and possible outcome, he said.

Avoiding risk altogether is not the answer. Teenagers would seek it out anyway, Mr Bowden said, and now more than ever they needed to be challenged.

"We need to be encouraging young people out into the environment.

"How do they respond to climate change, how do they become aware of the fragility of the environment if they don't experience it?"

Despite that, his school has not yet returned to Topec. The tragedy, though one year ago, is too close for many to even consider going back.

"I think the whole grieving process is quite complex and I have been surprised how I have been feeling over the last week as this has come upon us," Mr Bowden said in his office, a plaque destined for a stone memorial to the dead men on the shelf behind him.

"I realise just how raw the tragedy still is. If it's like that for me, then for the family it must be an extraordinarily difficult week."

It is. Through police, Mr Jourdain's widow, Robyn, released a 63-word statement. She hoped it could be printed in full.

"Be it one week, one month or one year, every day we are living with the grief of losing Bryce.

"If you had the privilege of knowing our Bryce remember his generous spirit, his ever patient and encouraging ways, his love of life and his belief that we can all make a positive impact by simply being ourselves . . . be true to who you are."

Neither of Stephen's parents, Bruce and Colleen, still reeling from the loss of their son, would contribute to this article but his brother Reece, like Robyn, had a few words he hoped to share with everyone.

"We miss you more than any thing. This past year has been very hard without you by our side. You have been an amazing uncle, brother, son, nephew and friend to us all.

"You were such an amazing person buddy, we will never forget you, you will always be on our mind and in our hearts forever. Keep shining down on us and keep smiling that perfect smile. We love you Stephen Lewis Kahukaka-Gedye."


COMMUNITY COMES TOGETHER has spoken to several people of New Plymouth who said there was one thing about this sad tragedy was brought light, "our community came together."

"Whether it be schools coming together, or a simple welcome down the street, our community came together as one" said one Spotswood resident. 

There was candle light vigils, donations for searches, and all round love and support.

Surf Lifesaving Taranaki spokesman Andy Cronin was in the helicopter and helped to lift the remaining students and instructor off the rockface .

The teenagers were scared and cold and some were wet from the sea, but almost all remained calm.

"That made them relatively easy to winch off."

The group was about 10m up from the waves, which were 2m to 3m high, Mr Cronin said. They were wearing outdoor clothing and all had helmets on.

"They appeared to be dressed for their rock-climbing activity."

It had been too loud in the helicopter to talk to the students and work out what had gone wrong, he said.

Mr Cronin said that in his 10 years with surf lifesaving, he had never had to rescue anyone who had fallen into the water while rock-climbing.

"It's a pretty rare situation."

"It's a real tragedy what's happened, but you really see the best in people come through in the worst of situations," Mr Cronin said.


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