Brave rescue efforts recognised

07:10, Jun 28 2013
Michael Johnston
BRAVE: Michael Johnston was awarded a silver medal from the Royal Humane Society of New Zealand.

A desperate attempt to save a teen trapped under a waterfall has led to Senior Constable Michael Johnston getting a medal for bravery.

The policeman dived into a raging river at Motatapu Gorge, near Wanaka, on New Year's Day last year to save 15-year-old Dion Latta, only to be beaten back by the torrent.

During a ceremony today at Government House, Wellington, he was awarded a silver medal from the Royal Humane Society of New Zealand.

More than a year later, Johnston still bows his head when he hears the story retold.

On the day he became a hero, he was just closing the doors of the Search and Rescue (SAR) shed when he was called about the incident.

He immediately drove to the gorge and made his way to the accident site, arriving to see Latta's foot sticking out of the water and his silhouette in the main flow.


Latta, a rugby player and cross-country champ, had been exploring a stream at the top of the gorge, slipped, and fallen backwards off the waterfall.

He was trapped, with his leg caught between two rocks.

For the next two hours, Johnston worked tirelessly to get him out.

He said he came under a spell of insanity that compelled him to do things he would not have usually done.

Friends, family, and other members of the public were looking to him for answers during the rescue, and he was not sure he had them.

"To try and solve the problem by myself was a difficult thing."

"There were things installed in me as a policeman and as a SAR person - that I'm no help to anyone if I put myself at risk."

But he climbed into the pool of water above where the boy was trapped and underwater, using a dive mask, was able to see the foot. He made several attempts to reach it, but could not due to the strong current.

Johnston tried to reach it by lying across a rock on the top of the waterfall.  He reached down the leg but could not budge it.

The strong current striking his shoulder caught Johnston by surprise, resulting in him slipping down the face of the rock and into the 1.5 metre deep pool of turbulent water below the waterfall.

He climbed back and took hold of the boy's hand, attempting to pull him to the side and out of the flow of the waterfall, but was unable to move him even slightly.

Several members of the Wanaka Alpine Cliff Rescue team arrived. It only took them five minutes to get there, but for Johnston it felt like an hour.

All the men knew was the boy's foot was moving and he was alive and to secure him they hitched a tie-down to his foot and used a pair of shorts to protect him.

When they got him out, CPR was commenced and Latta, who was unconscious, was taken by helicopter to Dunedin Hospital.

He did not recover and died in hospital.

At the inquest for the teenager last year, Otago-Southland coroner David Crerar said the evidence was some of the most harrowing he had heard in 33 years.


Brett Delamere and Eric Spittal were also honoured today for their bravery, awarded with a silver and bronze medal respectively.

Delamere and Spittal attended a car accident in Oamaru in October 2008, where a car had collided with a power pole, causing a live transmission line to fall on the roof of the car.

Power was arcing through the vehicle causing the surrounding ground to become live. Fire developed in the car's engine bay and its tyres caught alight.

Rural Fire Officer Spittal approached the vehicle to help the passengers out, but received a shock which knocked him off his feet.

After attempting to put out the fire, he had to back away because of the danger.

The Fire Service, including Fire Officer Delamere, arrived and used a fibreglass pole to lift the powerline off the vehicle so the passengers could get out.

Using the pole - something usually used to pull ceilings down, was a "no-no" for the Fire Service.

"We took a gamble, and we got away with it.

"The first time I didn't get it right up, I went from a Maori to a white Maori - I got a hell of a shock."

On the second attempt, he succeeded in lifting the cable high enough to break the contact for a couple of seconds, allowing enough time for the passengers to be removed. 

The two people inside, who were in their 20s, and had left their children at home, later came to the station to thank him.