Rescue from raging waters

Last updated 12:03 19/04/2014
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Sergeant Peter Muldrew with the rescued woman in the bucket of a digger driven by farmer Robert Borst.

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An Oamaru woman was plucked to safety in a dramatic digger rescue after she had been trapped on her submerged car for an hour and a half.

Rhoda Davidson, 59, was driving to work at the Oamaru KFC when raging Kakanui River floodwaters swept her vehicle off Fuchsia Creek Rd, at Five Forks, about noon yesterday.

She had to smash a window to escape as water filled the car.

Only a thin wire boundary fence prevented the vehicle, and Davidson, being swept downstream.

Thanks to a local farmer who drove his digger into the torrent, and an off-duty policeman who pulled her into the digger's bucket, Davidson escaped the ordeal with only mild hypothermia.

Passersby raised the alarm. When rescuers arrived, the water had risen above the windscreen of the car.

Farmer Robert Borst was out moving cows when he saw fire engines go past. He "shot down" on his motorbike to see what was happening.

"I saw a car was in trouble and someone was sitting on the roof," he said.

"The fence was really the only thing holding the car from going downstream."

The water was "roaring" past the car, he said. "It was quite frightening really. It didn't look like a nice place to be. I thought, 'This car could go at any stage'."

There were power lines above the car, hampering a potential helicopter rescue bid.

Borst tried to get to Davidson in a four-wheel-drive tractor, but it was "too deep and too swift".

He returned to his farm to collect his 14-tonne digger.

Meanwhile, a jet boat was placed on stand-by at the river and the Otago regional rescue helicopter turned out in case the rescue "went wrong".

Oamaru police Sergeant Peter Muldrew, who is a search and rescue co-ordinator, was by chance down the road.

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He was "harnessed up" and climbed into the digger's bucket.

"I put my hand up" to do it, Muldrew said.

Borst said he "crept out" into the flood.

"I couldn't see where the road was. I got as far as I could, probably within a metre of the car," he said.

"The water was in the digger as well where I was sitting. It was fairly deep and hairy in there. The adrenaline was certainly pumping."

Muldrew reached out, grabbed Davidson and rolled her into the digger bucket shortly before 1.30pm.

"She was pretty pleased to see us," Muldrew said.

"She's very lucky she managed to get on to the roof on time. My biggest concern was that she would slip off," he said.

"Had she gone in the river, she'd have been 100 yards away in seconds. You've got to admire her for trying to get to work. She's obviously very conscientious."

Davidson was last night recovering at a friend's home in Oamaru, as she could not return home due to the flooding.

The friend said Davidson was "very grateful to her rescuers".

Her husband, Brian, said his wife spent a few hours in hospital being treated for hypothermia. She simply told him she was "just pretty cold" on the rooftop, he said.

Weston Volunteer Fire Brigade chief fire officer Bevan Koppert said Davidson's car had drifted at least 4 metres off the road. She was the sole occupant.

"She was very lucky. If one wire of the fence had broken, she would have been a goner."

A rescue helicopter spokesman said they got to the scene as the digger rescue was under way. They observed in case something went wrong but were not required.



Meanwhile, the devastating storm which struck the West Coast will take days to clean up after, says Buller District mayor Garry Howard.

The region is reeling today after gale force winds and torrential rain destroyed buildings, downed trees and flooded streets.

''I've lived in Westport all my life and this is the strongest wind I've ever seen," he said.

''It was horrific, it was scary and ... it was ridiculous. Thankfully we haven't got anyone seriously hurt.''

Hundreds of residents rallied yesterday to help those worst affected, Howard said. He was unable to estimate the cost of the damage.

''It's certainly going to add up to be quite a lot."

The destruction was likened to a hurricane in Greymouth.

Strong winds ripped off roofs to about 60 homes in the Grey District, destroyed Blaketown Hall and aircraft hangars at Greymouth airport, and tossed shipping containers at the port onto fishing boats, mayor Tony Kokshoorn said.

The historic Runanga Miners Hall had also lost its roof.

Twenty-seven residents spent last night in welfare centres.

Kokshoorn emerged from a meeting where it was decided not to declare a state of emergency, as there was no threat to life.

Forecast rain had arrived and emergency services and volunteers were racing to patch up the damaged homes.

"We've got a huge amount of damage to get on top of. Coasters are resilient but it's something we didn't need," he said.


Eight intensive care unit (ICU) patients and staff had to be evacuated to the recovery ward of Nelson Hospital as a massive 12 x 6m section of the roof hung precariously over the department.

All affected buildings have been evacuated and a security cordon has been set up on Waimea Rd between Franklyn and Motueka sts.

Fire station officer Craig Davies, who was overseeing the site, said the biggest threat was if the piece of roof flew off like a sail as they could not predict where it would land.

He had two trucks and eight staff on the scene overseeing the removal of the roof.

A crane has been brought in.

Davies said it was important to take the roofing off as soon and as safely as possible as it was hanging "off not much" and the ICU unit had expensive equipment they did not want to see damaged.

Acting chief executive at the hospital Eric Sinclair said the roof came off the George Manson building sometime in the night due to high winds.


Buller Electricity chief executive Erik Westergaard said the company's entire network, which serviced 4500 customers from Punakaiki to Karamea, was without power this morning.

Fallen trees had caused ''significant damage'' to power lines, he said. ''I've never seen this sort of damage to a network. The only thing that could compare to it would be a cyclone or a hurricane.

''I don't think many people outside of the region realise how much damage is over here.''

Westergaard said power would be restored to the network in chunks from early this afternoon. It was hoped many homes in the area would have power again before it got dark this evening.

It would take two to three days to complete temporary repairs and up to six months to permanently fix damage to the network, Westergaard said.

Despite being Good Friday, in Westport this morning the Mitre 10 fired up a generator and was open so people who need to do urgent repairs can gather supplies.

The store's assistant manager Troy Scanlon said strong winds cut power to the area and it was not known when it would be back up. 

"It's pretty bad. A lot of people have lost roofs.

"When the gusts hit you struggled to stand up.

"People have lived their whole lives here and never seen anything like it."

MetService said Westport was battered with the country's strongest winds, with 130kmh recorded at 3pm yesterday.

Westport Fire Brigade deputy chief fire officer Alan Kennedy said heavy rain was compounding damage caused to buildings in the town by the winds yesterday.

Firefighters were busy this morning helping residents patch up their damaged homes. Two houses had completely lost their roofs while many others suffered partial damage, Kennedy said.

Firefighters could not respond to some jobs yesterday because it was too dangerous.


Evacuated residents of Christchurch's Flockton Basin have returned to their homes to once again try and fight the floods.

Although the damage is not as bad as last month, properties in the area are yet again submerged in knee-high water.

Alison Naylor moved out of her Francis Ave house after it was inundated with water in March.

Last night, she drove past her empty home to assess the situation.

''I didn't have gumboots big enough to even get up to the house,'' she said.

''This proves to me and a whole lot of other people that this is not a one in 100 year flood - this is a one in a month and a half flood now.''

Rose and Stephen Lennon also returned to their Carrick St home last night to sandbag their garage and try to protect the belongings they have stored inside.

When their 4WD pulled into the driveway about 8.30pm, the water was already up to the car doors, Rose Lennon said.

This morning, the water had seeped into the garage and was once again rising up to the floorboards beneath their house, she said.

The couple are currently living in a short-term rental while their home is, ironically, flood-repaired.

Jo Byrne, of Carrick St, also returned in the rain last night to help sandbag her neighbour's houses.

''It's not nearly as bad as last time, I haven't heard that anyone has been actually flooded out this time, but everyone is just sitting tight and hoping the rain will stop,'' she said.


On top of the outages in Buller, power was cut to tens of thousands of homes around the country yesterday as strong winds and stray branches caused power lines to come down.

In the capital, 700 homes lost power yesterday but all except a handful had seen their electricity restored.

Across Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Wanganui and Manawatu, 25,000 customers lost power in the storm, supplier Powerco said.

As of this morning, 17,000 homes had seen their electricity return while another 8000 remain without power. Crews would be working through Good Friday to fix faults and downed lines.

About 1500 homes in Rotorua remained without power this morning, a Unison spokesperson said. The company hoped to restore supply to 1000 customers today.

About 370 northern Auckland properties are still without power, down from about 22,000 Vector customers at the height of the storm. 
It was unclear how long it would take to restore power, a Veector spokeswoman said. 

The weather has also affected flights at Christchurch Airport this morning.

Spokeswoman Yvonne Densem said the airport was open and operating, but regional services were affected.

In the capital, ferry services across Cook Strait were cancelled or delayed. The wild winds also forced one Jetstar flight bound for Wellington to return back to Auckland last night. 

Three Air New Zealand flights in and out of the capital were also cancelled, as were a number of Link regional flights countrywide.

Fifty vehicles, including campervans and trucks, spent the night stranded at Springs Junction after State Highway 7 - Lewis Pass - to Greymouth closed. The road had now re-opened.

A Coastal Pacific train from Picton to Christchurch was stopped by landslips and flooding further up the line at Kaikoura station and passengers given accommodation there for the night.

State Highway One between Kaikoura and Piction had 24 slips and partial road blockages last night, prompting police to advise motorists to stay away from the area, especially as heavy rain had been forecast.

- with Blair Ensor, Kate Davidson, Shabnam Dastgheib, Katie Kenny and Olivia Wannan 

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