Close to 1000 people gathered at Taranaki's Back Beach for a candle-light vigil following Wednesday's Paritutu rock climbing tragedy.
People of all ages turned out to remember two students and a Topec climbing instructor who were swept away by heavy seas while rock climbing around the New Plymouth landmark.
The missing are Joao Felipe Martins De Melo, 17, an international student from Brazil, Spotswood College student Stephen Lewis Kahukaka-Gedye, 17, and Bryce John Jourdain, a 42-year-old Topec instructor originally from Whangerei.
The crowd gathered to pray, sing songs and share their thoughts and feelings about the tragedy.
A fierce haka was performed and the national anthem was sung several times.
Search and rescue efforts for the two missing students and their climbing instructor are now a body recovery operation.
The search was called off at 4.30pm today and will resume again tomorrow morning at 7am, but all hope of finding the trio alive is gone, Incident Controller Inspector Frank Grant said.
"The reality is it is turning in to a recovery operation now," he said.
Prime Minister John Key told Radio New Zealand that his heart went out to the families of the missing trio.
"If a worst case scenario plays out and these young people are lost there will be a full inquiry by both the police and the coroner, and there would be also a review to make sure the operator has followed all of their legal requirements."
A school group were on an exercise run by Topec on Paritutu rock, a 150-metre landmark overlooking Port Taranaki, when disaster struck.
Three students fell into rough seas just after 1pm and Jourdain dived in to save them. One student was winched to safety.
The boy who was winched out by the Taranaki Community Rescue Helicopter was taken to Taranaki Base Hospital where he was treated for hypothermia and discharged.
The remaining nine members of the group were also airlifted to hospital and discharged shortly after.
Five inflatable rescue boats, the South Taranaki coastguard, Cape Rescue boat, an Air Force Iroquois, Taranaki community rescue helicopter, Shell-Todd helicopter, Land Search and Rescue staff and police were all involved in today's operation.
Grant said the search had focused on a 4km stretch of coast from Omata to Tapuae, south of Paritutu Rock, and went to a depth of about 25m.
The national police diving squad decided against entering the water today because of heavy swells and would re-assess conditions again at 7am tomorrow, Grant said.
"Police are also making enquiries into the circumstances which led to yesterday's tragic incident. The police investigation is being conducted alongside a Department of Labour investigation."
International student Felipe has been in New Zealand since January.
According to his father, Celio Fernando Bezerra Melo, he planned to return to Fortaleza in October.
Celio and his family received the news of the accident this morning from the company that runs the exchange.
One of Felipe's aunts has travelled to New Zealand while the rest of the family is in Fortaleza praying, Celio told Brazilian media.
"We are waiting for news, we are optimistic because no one found anything. We have to pray and hope that everything goes right," he told OPOVO.
His father said the family hoped he was on an island awaiting rescue.
A profile on the Topec website said Jourdain joined the centre from NorthTech in Whangerei where he was a tutor in Outdoor Education.
"Bryce is determined to become Taranaki Hardcore but he has a way to go yet. Bryce is always heading out and about discovering new and amazing places," it reads.
Jourdain holds NZOIA rock 1, first aid, Certificate in Adult Tertiary Teaching qualification has extensive Bush and sea kayaking experience.
At present he is working towards his raft guide and kayaking qualifications.
"Bryce is also experienced in caving, hunting and surf and has a strong understanding of Tikanga Maori and Te Reo. Bryce has been a great addition to the team and he has slotted right in - one of his best kept secrets that few people know that he is past finalist of Survivor Brazil."
Hundreds of online comments have been posted to Facebook tribute sites overnight and today.
In them Stephen Gedye is described as a strong, smart young man.
"Stephen Gedye - kia kaha .. Ur a fighter cuz.. I know u will souljah on and stick it out until the morning. love u and just wish we knew u were safe!! It kills me that this has happened and there is nothing we can do but pray!! Everyone please pray for the return of 3 people missing.. U boys have loving and worried families waiting on ur return ," a comment from the site said.
SCHOOL IN MOURNING
Spotswood College principal Mark Bowden said police attended a full staff briefing at the school today and a meeting had also been held with senior officials from Topec.
A traumatic incident response team had been put together and was carefully planning its approach to ensure families and students were supported, Bowden told Radio NZ.
A support centre was operating at the school involving local Victim Support counsellors, along with special education counsellors and the school's own counsellors.
"We've been inundated .... with wonderful offers of support from other local schools, the police, other support agencies, the hospital, our own school chaplain, and other school chaplains," he said.
"It's that sense of helplessness and of the need to do something, and we're very mindful of that and want to support students through that."
Topec had been set up by Taranaki schools 25 years ago, with each school contributing staffing to it, Bowden said.
"I understand that they are going through similar feelings and processes being put in place out at their base, as well."
Helicopter crewman Phil Dwyer said the conditions made rescue efforts yesterday particularly dangerous.
"The waves were breaking really hard up against the bottom of Paritutu," Dwyer said.
"The water was just white with whitewash so you couldn't see anything or anyone in the water really."
Dwyer said the group was stranded about eight metres from the bottom of Paritutu and couldn't move.
"They were in a really difficult place to winch out of. The main issue was getting in close to the rock face," he said.
"They were in a position where the water was hitting the bottom of the rocks and they were getting hit by the spray from the waves."
Dwyer said it was a tremendous relief getting the rest of the group to safety.
"It was a good thing to get them off definitely. They were in a situation where their lives were in danger."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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