It was a community response that amazed everyone involved.
When 5-year-old autistic boy Ryan Peel got lost on the Orongorongo Track on Saturday, police and Land Search and Rescue sent about 25 volunteers to Rimutaka Forest Park.
But soon Wainuiomata residents were also making their way to the makeshift operations base in the Catchpool car park and asking: "What can I do to help?"
"It was astonishing. I haven't seen a community reaction like that anywhere else," Ryan's father, Edward Peel, said yesterday.
"Clearly all those people had better things to do on a very cold, wet and windy Saturday night, so the fact they pitched in straight away was great."
The search team scoured the park for almost five hours before Ryan was found - cold but safe - sitting near a creek about 800 metres from the car park. He was carried out about 9.45pm.
Wellington police search and rescue co-ordinator Anthony Harmer said the community reaction was amazing, but hardly surprising.
"Wainuiomata always has an amazing sense of community, we've seen it before in previous searches."
Mr Peel, of Churton Park, Wellington, said a local woman also offered him and his family a place to stay for the night, when it looked as if the search might drag on.
"There's a view that people today will just walk on by when they see something like this happening. Well, not here - people get involved." Ryan went missing just before 5pm, not long after he, his father, older sister Kiera, and stepmother Diana Globina had set out on their walk up the Orongorongo Track.
They had been tramping for only about 10 minutes when Ryan ran off ahead and disappeared around a bend.
Police dog handlers entered the bush not long after he was reported missing. Within an hour, a full search and rescue team had entered the fray.
Police search and rescue officer Geoff McGhie, who found Ryan, said he was remarkably calm but cold and shivering when they found him. Aside from a few scratches, he was in good health.
Land Search and Rescue volunteer Meg Shaw said it was easy to feel motivated when surrounded by so many people determined to search for as long as it took.
Fellow volunteer Rochelle Andrews said the little things such as the two women who arrived with coffee and sandwiches for the search team late at night made a big difference as well.
BP Wainuiomata store manager Katie Hardie said she was happy to oblige with a few free coffees when she heard the search team had been slugging their guts out in the cold without any dinner.
Mr Peel said Ryan was back to his normal self yesterday, playing on his trampoline and messing about with his toys.
"He was acting as if nothing had happened when he came out of the bush . . . he was more interested in playing with the buttons at the command centre.
"I was just so elated when they told me I was going to get him back . . . "
TRACKING DEVICE A SILVER LINING
A silver lining to Ryan Peel's ordeal is that he is now the first Wellingtonian to own a special tracker designed for people with autism.
The Wandatrack is a small device that emits a personalised signal.
It has been designed to give peace of mind to families of people with dementia, autism or other conditions that cause them to regularly wander off.
Ryan's device resembles a pendant but they can also be made to look like a watch or key chain.
Police search and rescue co-ordinator Anthony Harmer said the technology had been available in Wellington for only a few months but he hoped the devices would become commonplace.
"It reduces our search time massively. [On average it takes] 20 searchers up to eight hours but this would see one to two people searching for maybe an hour."
The devices cost $280 and replacing the battery every six months costs $30.
The recently established Wellington Wander Search Charitable Trust administers the devices and raises funds to cover their cost.
They also ask for a small monthly donation from the user.
Ryan's father, Edward Peel, said he had looked for something similar in China and other parts of the world without realising he could source one at home.
"One of the good things about this bizarre situation, that I'd never want to find myself in, is Ryan now has a Wandatrack."
For more information contact Wellington police search and rescue.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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