Summer's end claims at least six lives

01:43, Jan 31 2009
LOMG WAIT: Students and parents gethered at Elim Christian School in Howick to hear news of pupils lost on a canow trip in the central North Island.

At least six people are dead this morning and three missing, including pupils from an Auckland school, as the weather turned nasty after months of a lazy summer.

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A fierce storm swept out of the north, killing 15 and 16 year olds on a school holiday camp in the central North Island, and a horseman struck by lightning in Northland.

The storm, accompanied by thunder and lightning, hit the far north on Tuesday morning and then across Auckland at midday and along drought plagued Waikato and the central North Island.

Whilst a blessing to water starved farmers, it has been a cataclysmic end to one of the finest summers New Zealanders have ever experienced,

The worst of the tragedy hit South Auckland's Elim Christian College after seven of their pupils and a teacher were swept away at the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre (OPC) near National Park.

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The pupils, part of a group of 11, had been canyoning on the Mangatepopo River when the storm hit suddenly, filling it with raging torrents that caught the pupils.

Waikato police communications manager Andrew McAlley said five people were dead and three missing.

In a statement he said that at about 4pm yesterday a group of 12 people, including 10 students from Elim, got into difficulties while negotiating the Mangatepopo George.

"Initial reports indicate the group got into difficulty and were swept away in the Mangatepopo Stream," he said.

"Police and Search and Rescue personnel from across the Central North Island have rushed to the scene to try and locate the missing people. They will remain in the field overnight and be replaced by reinforcements at daybreak."

Taumarunui police Inspector Steve Mastrovich last night said they had found five bodies of Elim pupils.

Two more pupils and a teacher are this morning missing.

At Elim College in Howick dozens of grief stricken pupils and parents were gathered last night, many of them praying in the school chapel.

They were saying little to the media gathering at the college.

"Our prayers are with the students, the teachers and their parents," Phil Gaze, chairman of the college's board of trustees, said.

Elim principal Murray Burton said the students were canyoning down a river near the centre when they became separated from the main party.

They did not show up to be collected along with other students at the end of the activity late in the afternoon.

Mr Burton was informed they were missing about 5.50pm yesterday.

"From what I understand they were well equipped for the journey with wetsuits, life jackets and harnesses," he said early last night.

"It is a fairly standard sort of activity. I guess it was the OPC's call as to whether they should still go and I have no reason to doubt their judgment."

During the drama an instructor and two pupils made it to safety.

Mr Mastrovich said the instructor with the group made an emergency call, via radio, when the river came up suddenly, giving searchers just two hours of daylight.

"The river rose dramatically."

One student, who suffered head and back injuries, managed to pull himself out of the water and clamber up rocks to safety where he was found and taken to hospital.

Last night's tragedy brought back memories of the 1995 Cave Creek disaster, where 13 students and one Conservation Department officer died on an outdoor recreation course when a platform collapsed.

The other death in yesterday's storm occurred near Dargaville when a 61-year-old Auckland man was hit by lightning. It also killed the horse he was riding as part of a Northland Hunt Club outing.

Five other riders were injured and taken to Dargaville Hospital before being transferred to Whangarei Hospital. They were not seriously injured.

The dead man's widow was near the group when disaster struck, family friend Ivan Bridge told TV1's Close Up.

"She was...very grateful she had the opportunity to be with him."

Mr Bridge said his friend loved riding, and travelled long distances to be part of events such as the one he died in.

"It was just a group out there having fun. His wife did make the comment that if he had to go, this would be the way he would have liked to go," Mr Bridge said.

"He and his horse both died instantaneously, within seconds."

The injured riders were attended to within minutes by two GPs, three registered nurses and an advanced paramedic.

Efforts to revive the dead man continued over about half an hour.

Mr Bridge was riding toward the front of the field, and did not see the lightning strike.

"The news filtered through that a horse had gone down and someone had gone down, but...we had no idea what the consequences were. People riding in the front of the hunt ``heard the noise and turned around and saw them on the ground.

"It happened very quickly, apparently the lightning entered through him.

"He wouldn't have know what happened to him and it probably continued through him into his horse.

"Everyone understandably was very upset, feeling for the family, our deepest sympathy go with the family.

"It was freakish, I've never heard of it happening in New Zealand.''

One of the party, Lionel Unitt, who was hit in the leg by the lightning, said those taken to hospital were "fine".

"We were just hunting...We had a freak lightning storm come over and it struck  unfortunately,'' he told Close Up.

He said he felt a shock in his leg but managed to stay upright.

Everything possible was done by those present, he said.

Fairfax Media