One dead, three injured after car plunges into Wairarapa river video

Caleb Harris /

Acting sergeant Tony Matheson of Wairarapa police describes the rescue and salvage operation after a car plunged into the swollen Waipoua River on the Masterton bypass road this morning, killing one and injuring three.

Police have named the 35-year-old man killed when a car left the road and plunged into a Wairarapa river.

Benjamin Young from Lower Hutt died in the accident, while three others were winched to safety from the rooftop of their submerged car.

Police were alerted to the crash off Paierau Rd, about 7 kilometres north of Masterton, at 4am on Saturday.

The wreckage of a car that crashed into the Waipoua River, near Masterton, is retrieved from the water.

The wreckage of a car that crashed into the Waipoua River, near Masterton, is retrieved from the water.

Acting sergeant Tony Matheson, of Masterton Police, said a late-model Holden Commodore went around a corner and through a wire fence before hitting a concrete abutment and crashing into the flooded Waipoua River.

READ MORE: One dead in car river plunge

The car appeared to have partially disintegrated on impact with the bridge, sending parts flying across to the far side of the river.

A members of the Police National Dive Squad works to retrieve the wreckage of a car.

A members of the Police National Dive Squad works to retrieve the wreckage of a car.

The body of Young was found next to the bridge, a short distance from where the car was almost completely submerged.

He was dead before emergency service arrived a few minutes later, Matheson said.

"It's just a tragic event for the family and his friends."

The wreckage was still visible in the Waipoua River come daylight on Saturday.

The wreckage was still visible in the Waipoua River come daylight on Saturday.

Police believe speed was a potential factor in the crash. They have also taken blood samples from the two women and one man who survived to determine if alcohol was involved.

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The three survivors - aged 16, 23 and 25, and from the Wellington region - were winched by the Westpac rescue helicopter from the roof of the vehicle to the riverbank.

Two survivors were seriously injured and one had moderate injuries. They were taken to Wairarapa Hospital in Masterton where they were treated for fractures and hypothermia.

A small piece of the submerged car gives an indication of how little space there was for the three people who were ...

A small piece of the submerged car gives an indication of how little space there was for the three people who were trapped on top.

A hospital spokeswoman said two of the patients were "distressed and in a lot of pain" but their conditions were stable on Sunday. A third was transferred to Wellington Hospital and was in a stable condition on Sunday. 

The Life Flight Trust, which operates the Westpac rescue helicopter, got called to the scene after a local farmer heard the crash and discovered the wreckage about 4am.

The police serious crash unit examine the scene where the car left the road and plunged into the river.

The police serious crash unit examine the scene where the car left the road and plunged into the river.

Life Flight crewman Julian Burn described it as the most challenging winch rescue he had ever performed.

The three survivors were huddled on the car roof, just a few inches above water, leaving a space no bigger than a welcome mat upon which the helicopter crew could land a paramedic.

The area was pitch black and there were strong winds knocking the helicopter around.

Making matters worse was the glass and jagged metal on the car roof, as well as nearby powerlines, which made lowering a paramedic down on to the car roof extra tricky.

Police and the fire service did what they could to illuminate the scene from the riverbank, but it was so dark that the helicopter crew had to operate with night vision goggles, Burn said.

"The situation was really dangerous ... we knew we had to be extremely careful because even the slightest mistake and we might have knocked one of those people into the water."

The three people trapped on the car roof were healthy enough to be placed into a harness and moved to the riverbank, Burn said. They managed to get all three of them to safety in about 10 minutes.

Any slower and they might have been in trouble, because the helicopter crew spotted a lightning storm in the distance, which was closing in as they were performing the winch, Burn said.

"Had it all happened about 20 minutes later, we might not have been able to do it ... they were extremely lucky."

Burn said the speed of the river's current and the lack of visibility made it far too dangerous to try and swim across.

"It was white water and it was moving pretty quickly. Swimming would have been a bad move. They made the right call by staying where they were."

The three rescued people were cold and in shock when paramedics reached them, he said.

There was a "sense of relief" that they had been rescued but they were also quite emotional about the fact one of them did not make it.

Matheson said it appeared those involved in the crash were all friends who had been completing a round trip between the Wellington-Hutt Valley area and Palmerston North.

It is thought they had been at a car enthusiast event somewhere in the Manawatu, he said.


Paierau Rd resident Christine Gleeson doesn't know why she was still awake at 4am on Saturday, but it is a good thing she was.

Had she been asleep, there's a chance she may not have heard the car that crashed into the Waipoua River not far from her house, and the resulting screams in the night.

"I was awake and I could hear the car coming down the road. Then I just heard this loud bang and then silence," she said.

Gleeson and her husband Barry went outside to take a look and heard the panicked voices of people scrambling out of the car and screaming "help," she said.

By the time the Glessons made it to the river's edge, the three survivors had climbed atop their submerged car but were trapped in the middle of the swiftly flowing river, which was in flood.

Christine Gleeson then ran back inside to phone police.

She and her husband had lived on Paierau Rd for 23 years and this was the third time they had seen a car crash near the bridge that crosses the Waipoua River.

Because the road curved around a corner quite close to the bridge, it made the stretch of road "a bit dangerous" for any vehicles that were going fast, she said.


 - Stuff

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