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One family – their tragic swim

Updated: Jan 27

A Contribution from Tony Brooks

Tony Brooks recounts his experience of a casual visit to Opoutere Beach

It was our last week of holidays. After the days of rain and wind, my partner, Kathy, and I had been trying to find Summer somewhere and had spent the last few days travelling around the Coromandel Peninsula. We were heading home to Taupo and Kathy suggested we make a detour to Opoutere. She loved her memory of it from staying there years before in a holiday camp.

I was struck by how beautiful the beach was; I had never been there. But as soon as we stood up on the sand dunes, we could see terrible trouble. A small group of people were pulling a person from the water up onto the beach. There was about 20 people on the beach including us. We ran to see what we could do. The person was not in a good way at all. My partner was an experienced Accident and Emergency nurse; had been in the medical field for 33 years. She went to work straight away. And then another body was brought from the water. Everyone was trying to help. My wife worked on the breathing of the first person while another applied the pressure. But he could not be revived - the father was gone. Another being resuscitated had a chance of survival. Everyone worked to try and rescue those in the water.

People had notified the Emergency services before we got there. They were on their way but would not arrive before 30 minutes. Opoutere Beach is not easy to get to; its remote, not easily accessible.

Amazingly, there was a rescue board and a rescue tube on the beach provided by the local surf lifeguard. That equipment was invaluable. Two guys who knew how to use this equipment had grabbed it and gone out into the waves. They brought in the two youngest ones. This group in terrible trouble in the water was essentially one family – they were on holiday and had come down to the beach for a swim – Mum, Dad, two sons, a daughter, the daughter’s boyfriend and one other. It was a beautiful day, but the ocean was wild after the previous week’s storms. The Mother was the only one who didn’t go into the water. All six swimmers had got sucked out to the back about 100 metres. It was quick. When we arrived, they were scattered across about 50 metres.

The emergency services were amazing - professional and compassionate. To see the Mother standing there, her husband gone, her son still out there missing, the rest of her family being desperately rescued; it’s hard to explain the pathos of that. It was terrible. My partner tried to comfort her. What could we say that would help?

I have been thinking about that traumatic unfolding and those 20 people on a large stretch of beach who became caught up in that tragic drama before the emergency services arrived. I can’t help but think that sometimes there are greater things out there coming to play.

Of the twenty on the beach, my partner was an experienced emergency nurse; I had been a lifeguard patroller for twelve years; there was another nurse - experienced ICU, and two doctors, one of whom my partner knew. So, not only were people trying to help; there was a significant percentage of medically qualified people who knew exactly what to do. And those two young men - surfers - strong swimmers, who grabbed that lifeguard equipment and moved so quickly to try and bring in the family members. They were very competent in the surf. It was dangerous to go back out, but they did. They risked their Iives. I commend their bravery.

There was not much more in terms of practical help you could have asked for before the emergency services got there. As I speak about this, one is still missing, one is dead; but the tragedy could have been a lot worse. Without that combination of people on the beach, there could have been six deaths. It was a wild and big ocean; I am not exaggerating.

I know some have already said ‘those people should not have been out there.’ I don’t agree. They were in the shallows, but they were sucked out – an unfortunate and disastrous incident that happened to a lovely family who decided to go for a swim.

Perhaps we need to work harder at helping everyone not just learn to swim but enabling people to be swimmers who know what to do. There is a big difference.

We will not forget that day. It was a privilege, and it is how we all felt – that we could use the skills we have in a tragic moment.

Note: Part of report released by police Saturday 21 January. “A body has been located in the water near Opoutere Beach, north of Whangamatā. Police were alerted about 1.30pm.” Since then news reports confirm that it is Samuel Cruikshank, 15 the missing swimmer from Opoutere beach tragedy.


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