Amputation considered in dramatic rescue attempt

00:59, Jan 03 2012
Dion Latta rescue
A rescue helicopter lifts Dion out before flying him to Dunedin.

Rescuers considered amputation when trying to free teenager Dion Latta in Wanaka's Motatapu Gorge.

His foot caught in a narrow chasm, the 15-year-old hung upside down in a waterfall for more than three hours on New Year's Day – sucking air from a pocket behind the water, but stricken with hypothermia – as rescuers desperately tried to save him.
Abseiling rescuers succeeded in freeing Dion and winching him out by helicopter, but the Palmerston teenager died in Dunedin Hospital.

LandSAR New Zealand chairman Phillip Melchior said amputating the trapped limb had been considered, but the general medical opinion was that the shock involved in that could have been fatal.

"All options were being considered when it became obvious this was not going to be a quick and easy extraction," Melchior told Radio New Zealand today.

A rugby player and cross-country champ, Dion was with friends in Wanaka's Motatapu Gorge when his foot got stuck at the top of a 3.5m-high waterfall, about 6pm on Sunday.

Wanaka-based search and rescue volunteers, police and others gave 250 per cent trying to save the teen, Melchior said yesterday.

The John McGlashan College student represented Otago in the New Zealand cross-country championships in Christchurch in July.

Dion Latta rescue
Rescue crews work with Dion in the gorge.

Melchior, of Wanaka, yesterday said the effort by volunteers, police and others was immense. Conditions in a canyon with 30 to 40-metre sheer sides were extremely challenging, he said.

It was a bad New Year's Day, with three SAR operations and two deaths in the Wanaka region.

"You could not overstate the effort that was put in trying to rescue him and save his life ... "Obviously everybody's pretty sad."


Dion Latta
'TRAGIC LOSS': Dion Latta

Dion was trapped in a canyon about 50m upstream of a single-lane bridge across the Motatapu River, about 5km from the Motatapu Rd car park.

A member of a group who tried to help tramped out of the gorge until cellphone coverage was possible and called police about 6.30pm.

One rescuer said the team hoped and prayed for a positive outcome after a tricky and unusual operation to free the teen, whose foot was stuck and twisted in a narrow and fast-flowing chasm.

Land Search and Rescue alpine cliff rescue team leader Gary Dickson, of Wanaka, said members of a swiftwater rescue team was unavailable.

Police and alpine cliff rescue volunteers pooled resources.

Using a belay, rescuers abseiled down vertical, overhanging terrain into the gorge and used their bodies to break the flow of water.

By that stage the 15-year-old, who was almost upside down in cold water, was slipping into unconsciousness but responsive to yelling and pain, Mr Dickson said.

Oxygen was administered and, eventually, rescuers managed to wrench the boy's foot free and he was winched from the gorge by the Otago Regional rescue helicopter about 10pm.

The helicopter landed in the nearby Motatapu Rd car park and advanced paramedics went to work for up to 40 minutes before flying to Dunedin.

"It was an ugly position," Mr Dickson said.

"This was unusual, the big thing they needed to do was block the flow and be on the belay so they didn't end up over the waterfall."

He said volunteers were frustrated by the difficult-to-access terrain, although rescuers were familiar with the gorge, which is used for search and rescue training.

"The whole community ... it's amazing what comes out when you're under pressure and trying to do it safely. To get that level of expertise on New Year's Day was amazing."

Acting search and rescue co-ordinator Senior Constable Mike Johnston,of Wanaka, said Dion's foot was trapped at the top of the 3.5m waterfall and his friends tried to stop him being washed away by holding his free leg and securing it.

Senior Sergeant Allan Grindell, of Wanaka, said the search and rescue was the third operation mounted on Sunday.

The Wanaka community was able to call on a high level of expertise at short notice but it was a very sad outcome, he said.

The principal of John McGlashan College, Mike Corkery, said it was an absolute tragedy to lose such a promising young life.

"He was a good athlete, a good student, and a popular kid – he was just one of the boys. There's really nothing you can say, it's just a terrible tragedy."

Dion had boarded at the college with his older brother Cody, who finished year 13 last year.

''Dion was one of the family in the boarding house. He just threw himself into everything with such vigour.''

Friends of the adventurous young 15-year-old took to Facebook to express their sorrows.

On a memorial Facebook page for Dion, friends changed their profile pictures to an image of a muddy Dion playing rugby.

''I know it should have but it still hasn't hit me that your gone,'' Olivia McIntyre wrote.

''I go on Facebook and the home page is full with loving posts about you. You will never ever be forgotten man, rest easy.''

The Southland Times