Hope fades for missing tourists

JOELLE DALLY, BLAIR ENSOR, OLIVIA CARVILLE AND NICOLE MATHEWSON
Last updated 16:39 18/09/2013
Haast crash wreck
GRIM DISCOVERY: The wrecked chassis of the rental vehicle hired by the pair, wrapped around a boulder in the Haast River.

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Missing Canadians Connor Hayes and Joanna Lam are presumed dead after their rented campervan was hit by a slip in stormy conditions and plunged off the road into the Haast River, police say.

While other vehicles turned back because of the weather, it appeared the couple had continued driving along the Haast Pass highway during the storm on Tuesday last week.

Hayes, 25, and Lam, 24, were last seen at Fox Glacier on September 10, but the alarm was not raised until September 16 when Lam failed to turn up to her first day at work at Nelson Hospital.

At a media briefing in Greymouth this afternoon, West Coast area commander Inspector John Canning said the chances of finding someone alive were "remote".

Police believed the couple had driven through the Diana Falls area, where there was a major slip that night, but "in all likelihood" they were hit by another slip.

Search efforts would continue downstream from the presumed crash site.

Given that a week had passed since they were thought to have crashed, police would be in contact with the coroner, Canning said.

Canning said searching would continue until they had covered "every area thoroughly" in the search for the pair. "That may take quite some time."

He said their van, a Volkswagen hired in Nelson, was found "extensively damaged" in a riverbed, the chassis wrapped around a rock near the Gates of Haast bridge. Debris from the vehicle was also found.

A petrol tank was found washed ashore about seven kilometres up the coast from the river mouth.

JOURNEY PIECED TOGETHER

Police believed the couple planned to travel south to Otago and up the east coast to Nelson.

Police had pieced together their movements by speaking to Haast residents who were travelling behind what was thought to be the couple's van through the Haast Pass about 6.30pm on Tuesday last week.

The locals turned back because of the weather after following the van for five to 10 minutes.

Later that night, a series of slips came down along the highway.

Canning said the water in the gorge was running "very high", about six metres higher than it was today.

After the couple crashed, pieces of the van were swept downstream.

Canning said police were looking into an account from a Haast resident who followed a campervan in the Haast Pass but lost sight of it minutes before encountering a slip.

A resident said the woman and her daughter had told her they were attempting to get to Dunedin, leaving Haast about 6.20pm.

It took them about an hour to get to Pleasant Flats. They continued on the Haast Pass highway towards the summit.

They stopped briefly and could still see the van's tail lights. However, when they set off again, they encountered a slip a short drive further on.

Trees were blocking the road, so they were forced to turn back. There was no sign of the van.

The road was closed about 8pm.

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"They never saw it again. It had to be on the other side of the slip or the slip got it," the resident said.

GRIM DISCOVERY

Earlier police released a photo of the chassis of their rental van.

A police officer yesterday had spotted pieces of the wrecked van 80 metres down a cliff in a gorge off State Highway 6, near the Gates of Haast bridge.

Connor Hayes' father Michael had left Canada and was en route to New Zealand to help search for his son, his aunt Christina Hayes said.

Speaking from her home in Smiths Falls, Ontario, she said the family was anxiously awaiting news about her nephew.

"He [Connor] is a great guy. He's very caring. He loves to be outdoors, which is [one of the reasons] why he was there [in New Zealand]."

She said the family was "incredibly worried" but "we're praying for a safe return".

Meanwhile, Jeffrey Lam has been clinging to hope that his sister and her boyfriend are still alive.

"At this point, we kind of have to. We are obviously praying and hoping," the 27-year-old Canadian said this morning.

"They loved each other and they did everything together."

From his Ontario home, Lam spoke of his despair at not knowing what had happened to his sister and her boyfriend.

His parents were dealing with the situation "terribly".

"We don't have enough information. We are just hoping ... that something comes to fruition that gives us an answer to move forward."

Lam said his sister and Hayes arrived in New Zealand on September 2 after spending about a month in Peru.

The last contact she had with her family was by email on September 8.

Joanna Lam was meant to take up a placement as a medical imaging specialist at Nelson Hospital's radiology department on Monday.

Hayes was going to return to Canada after she had settled. He was training to be a police officer.

They had travelled through the North Island and were looking forward to heading to the South Island, he said.

Lam said the pair were "experienced travellers".

They had hiking gear, sleeping bags and other equipment to survive harsh conditions, he said.

"They loved each other and they did everything together. They encouraged each other, they challenged each other, they inspired each other."

He described his sister as a free spirit with a bubbly personality. She was once head girl at Kingston Collegiate Vocational Institute in Canada.

She had done volunteer work in Costa Rica, he said.

"She was trying to inspire those around her. The most captivating thing about my sister has to be her smile. She treated the world as her oyster."

He said Hayes was a humble man.

The couple met more than two years ago and lived together in Ottawa.

A Twitter feed, #findjoandconnor, has been set up by people worried about the couple.

- Fairfax Media

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