Rescuers happy to see Ali 'fighting fit'
Kyle Paki Paki now has a happier image of 2-year-old Ali Fa'avae-Mika whom he has finally met, weeks after hauling him from near death out of a sunken car.
Paki Paki joined other rescuers at a Fa'avae family gathering in Nelson, and was grateful for the chance to see Ali in a different light, but the image of the trapped child's face remains strong.
"It was incredible meeting Ali and I was able to give him a size four [Nelson club] Wanderers rugby jersey with his name on the back," Paki Paki said.
He described the toddler as a typical 2-year-old and apparently oblivious to what had happened.
"The meeting was really nice - really comfortable. The family is very similar to my own family."
Fellow rescuer Philip Walker said it was "overwhelming" that Ali was OK, as few on the riverbank that day held out much hope for him.
He said the Fa'avae family was deeply grateful to all who had helped, including many more people who were passing at the time or who were nearby and called to help.
British tourist Adam Black, who had been out for a run and who saw the car go into the creek, said he was also happy to have had the chance to meet the family this week.
"It was a nice, warm meeting and they're such a humble family.
"Ali was busy playing and it was good to see he was fighting fit," Black said.
Their lives converged as Paki Paki, who manages the Wanderers Division II rugby team, was driving to a game at Neale Park; Walker, a paua diver, was driving towards town from Atawhai with his wife and children; Gary Miller was driving home to Atawhai and Black was out for a run and had stopped on a footbridge to watch jellyfish in Salt Water Creek at the moment the car plunged into the water in front of him.
There was also a woman, who no-one can place, who played a critical role in caring for Ali, whom Paki Paki hauled limp and barely breathing from the car as it was being sucked under the water.
He displayed unusual strength in being able to smash the rear passenger window of the locked car door to get Ali out, and then dive into the dark and freezing water to eventually unbuckle him from his car seat.
"I was bobbing in the water, trying to break the window. It was like holding on to the side of a boat."
He eventually succeeded with the use of a tyre iron someone had thrown to him.
Ali was handed to Walker, who had dived in to help as his wife, Megan, stopped traffic on the highway.
Paki Paki said one of his strongest memories was Walker's "distinctive blue eyes" above the water as he gave instructions. Shock and fear set in when they realised a person - Fa'avae, was still in the car.
Walker, who eventually helped free Fa'avae after the trauma of discovering her in the driver's seat in water too murky to see her, said he did all he could.
"I couldn't hold my breath for anywhere near as long as I can usually. It was so cold when I jumped in and my heart was racing flat out."
Black injured himself while also smashing one of the car's windows.
Ali had been on an outing with his grandparents, Janice and Filemoni Fa'avae. They were driving home from the port area when Fa'avae apparently lost consciousness at the wheel of the car.
It crossed the highway at the intersection of QEII Drive and Wildman Ave, and into the tidal creek by the Trafalgar Centre, which is either full and flowing or almost completely dry.
It was high tide, and the creek was full and deep. Fa'avae got himself free from the car, and in fear almost pulled rescuer Paki Paki under.
Fa'avae was later taken to Nelson Hospital, but Fa'avae died at the scene after emergency workers spent 20 minutes trying to revive her.
Ali was also taken to Nelson Hospital but later flown to Auckland's Starship Hospital in a critical condition.
The rescuers were hailed as heroes, but the word "hero" sits uncomfortably with Paki Paki, who reckons there is a hero in everyone.
St John team manager Jon Leach, who has recently left Nelson, said without the men who jumped in, the child would have had no chance.
Sergeant Matt Elliott, of Nelson, said the rescuers had risked their own safety.
The pair have paused to consider what might have been had they and others who helped not been passing at that moment.
The shock remains evident in the tears that well easily when they recount events of the day, which ended with "four blokes just standing there, wondering what just happened", Paki Paki said.
"I don't really believe in fate, but I often think about where I could have been at that moment. I'd just driven past BP and remember thinking I could have done with a V [drink], but in the end I didn't stop. In fact, I even went the opposite way to the park than I normally do."
Walker said he re-played the ordeal several times.
"I'm just proud I was there and could do something. It would have been a crime not to. I don't feel like I deserve much praise. It's just something I did. It would be a pretty sad person to walk away from something like that."
- © Fairfax NZ News