Trapped driver drowned despite rescue efforts

FATAL CRASH: The van that went over the side of the Nokomai Bridge and into the Mataura river.
FATAL CRASH: The van that went over the side of the Nokomai Bridge and into the Mataura river.

Two Aussie fishermen jumped into a Southland river to help a group of tourists but were unable to free a man trapped underwater in a minivan.

Canadian tourist Uri Tak Kau Law, 59, was trapped underwater in a van and drowned when it plunged off a one-lane bridge on Nokomai Rd in Southland on February 4. His nine passengers, including wife Diane Germaine-Law, 52, and daughters Camille, 13, and Gisele, 14, survived.

Coroner Christopher Devonport's findings said Southland District Council reviewed signs on the approach to the bridge, removed vegetation and installed new signs.

When the Laws arrived in Queenstown they were joined by Hong Kong-based family, Mr Law's brother, three sisters and friends.

His wife told the coroner they hired a 10-seater Toyota Hiace and that her husband had some experience driving on the left because he had lived in the United Kingdom.

On the day of the crash, the group left Arrowtown, planning to drive to Milford Sound but decided to detour and see people fishing.

They turned down Nokomai Rd, a gravel road and stopped to go for a walk. However, while returning to the highway, the van hit the side of a one-lane bridge, toppled over the side and landed in the river on the driver's side.

Two Aussie fishermen saw the crash and rushed to help. Law's daughter Giselle told the coroner she thought her dad got too close to the side of the bridge.

''It felt like the passenger wheel hit the cement block on the side of the bridge. It was kind of a jolt and felt unbalanced. The van went a bit to the right and then back to the side of the bridge. We then went over the side of the bridge into the river.''

The van landed on its side in waist-deep water and Law, restrained by a seatbelt, was partially thrown from the vehicle and trapped under the driver's strut. The rest of the group managed to free themselves by pushing a window out and using the sliding side door.

Two fishermen, Andrew Barnsley and David Thompson, were also on the road at the time of the crash. They stopped and ran to help four women who were trying to lift the van off Law but were unable to move the van. By that stage the driver had been under water for 10 minutes.

Police found no fault with the van and there was no evidence of poor driving.

The coroner said the reality was the van was driven in such a way that it struck the side of the bridge and Law had little experience of gravel roads.

The Southland Times