A Mount Maunganui man reading on the beach watched a man drown before his eyes this week.
It was the latest fatality in a horror summer of drownings, the deadliest holiday period in New Zealand’s waterways in nearly 25 years.
At mid-afternoon on Thursday a man in his 50s died while swimming at Mount Maunganui beach, helped to shore by bystanders who attempted to revive him – later joined by surf lifesavers and emergency services.
Describing himself as the closest non-participating witness, Eric Steinmiller, 64, said people worked for half an hour before a helicopter eventually arrived. It was not needed.
Although the quick thinking of onlookers was a positive side to the tragedy, Steinmiller said the afternoon was distressing, putting him in “kind of a daze afterwards”.
“It makes you realise the power of the ocean,” said Steinmiller, who regularly reads and swims at the popular family beach.
“This is considered to be an absolutely great swimming beach, because it’s an easy slope. So if someone can drown here it’s a powerful, powerful thing – not to be taken lightly.
“I’m going to make damn sure when I go in in the future that I’m near somebody.”
In what has been described as “a national tragedy”, 14 people drowned in the holiday period,from 4pm Christmas Eve to 6am January 5.
They were aged between 4 and 74, and died between Motonau Island in Canterbury, to Kai Iwi Lakes in Northland.
And yesterday, a person died after being found in the water unresponsive in Whananaki, Northland; while another person was rushed to hospital after a water incident at Mount Maunganui.
According to data provided by Water Safety New Zealand, the last time New Zealand recorded 14 deaths was in the holiday period between 1997 and 1998.
It’s been nearly 40 years since more than this number of people died – 15 lost their lives between 1982 and 1983.
The “unprecedented” toll represents a 180 per cent increase on the five-year average – which is five.
Auckland Westpac rescue helicopter pilot Simon Owen attended two drownings at Waiwera Beach within two days this holiday period. The first, on Boxing Day, was fatal.
“When we landed on the beach there was already good CPR in progress from Surf Life Saving,” he said.
“Our intensive care paramedic and the doctor called it reasonably quickly as the patient had been found face down in the water. Resuscitation at this stage was pretty futile.”
Owen described Waiwera Beach as calm, flat and seemingly inviting, leaving swimmers unsuspecting of outgoing tides or fast flowing water.
He had also attendedseveral boating accidents – usually all with one common denominator.
“Lifejackets – I’m sure people are tired of wearing them, but I’m tired of pulling dead people from the water who don’t have lifejackets on.
“It’s such an unnecessary waste of human life.”
Since the beginning of summer, drowning fatalities in New Zealand now inch towards 30 – more than the previous summer’s whole three-month period, when 25 people died.
Water Safety NZ chief executive Daniel Gerrard told the Herald this week the uptick in drownings over the holiday period had raised “absolute alarm bells”.
He suggested lockdowns in Auckland, Northland and Waikato had perhaps created increased enthusiasm to get out and about, had contributed to people’s fitness being lower than usual, or their equipment being unserviced.
Primary school pupils had also missed out on term 4 swimming lessons, which not only boosted kids’ survival skills but fostered conversation around water safety at home and in the community.
Six drownings occurred in rivers in the Christmas New Year period, a significant jump on the five-year average of one. Four people died in the Manawatū River in Palmerston North.
Beaches often had more of a profile in the water safety conversation, but Gerrard said rivers were generally more dangerous.
People often forgot they could change quickly after heavy rain, sweeping away banks and altering the water’s depth.
Figures released by Water Safety NZ show half of the river fatalities were in the 25-34 age group. Drowning victims were overwhelmingly men – 11 of the total 14 fatalities.
Surf Life Saving New Zealand medical director Gary Payinda agreed lockdown may have affected the way people were assessing risk.
“What we’re seeing is that people are doing recreation activities away from the patrolled areas, really taking risks into their own hands.
“In rivers you also have issues of decreased buoyancy because it’s fresh water, and fast-moving currents.
“I’ve recently taken care of people who just did not realise how quickly the river could sweep away their kids – faster than they could respond, faster than they could be aware of.”
A surf lifesaver and emergency doctor, Payinda said he had treated some of the drowning victims over the holiday period. The tragedies would affect hundreds of lives that would never be the same.
Supervision, flotation devices and assessment of risk were often the most critical factors in fatal drownings, he said.
Payinda said it was perhaps time to change laws requiring lifejackets to merely be taken onboard a boat.
“Lifejackets carried aboard a boat don’t save anyone unless they’re worn, and people have a mistaken idea that when there’s an emergency, they will have time and capacity to react, that they will be able to go under that seat or into that boat locker and get out a lifejacket and put it on the kids, or themselves.
“Time after time, the patients say it happened before they knew it, and they were already in the water before they had any time to register something had even gone wrong.”
Drownings in New Zealand this holiday period
The first death was on Christmas Day, when a 60-year-old man died at Great Barrier Island.
On Boxing Day a 43-year-old man died at Karioitahi Beach, southwest of Auckland, and aman, 53, lost his life at Waiwera Beach.
On December 29 a 60-year-old man died at Horoera Beach in Gisborne.
In Palmerston North, a woman and a young girl – former refugees from the Palmerston North Karen community – went missing in the Manawatū River.
The body of 11-year-old Blae Ler Paw was found on December 31, and Mu Mu, 27, on January 2.
On January 2 the bodies of two men, aged 25 and 39, were also recovered from Manawatū River. Police and Palmerston North City Council urged the public not to swim at Ahimate Reserve, later putting up signs warning people of the dangers.
On January 3 a man died while free-diving south of Motunau Island off the Canterbury coast, near Pegasus Bay, north of Christchurch. It was the only drowning in the South Island this holiday reporting period – consistent with the five-yearly average.
Also on January 3 a 58-year-old man had an incident at the pool of St Matthew’s Collegiate School in Masterton, later dying in Wellington Hospital.
A man also went missing in the Waikato River, after last being seen jumping into the water from the jetty at Hamilton Gardens. His body was recovered on January 5.
In the last 24 hours of the holiday reporting period three people died.
A 28-year-old man died while swimming in the Waingaro waterhole and a 74-year-old woman lost her life at Wenderholm Beach. The holiday’s youngest victim, a 4-year-old boy, died at Kai Iwi Lakes in Northland. He was Shakib Tahir.
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