Avalanche of trees swept couple away

LOVED ONES LOST: Canadian couple Connor Hayes and Joanna Lam lost their lives in the Haast River gorge in September.
LOVED ONES LOST: Canadian couple Connor Hayes and Joanna Lam lost their lives in the Haast River gorge in September.

A Canadian couple swept to their deaths during a West Coast storm were last seen in their campervan near a landslip that blocked their escape from Haast Pass.

An inquest today was held into the deaths of Connor Hayes, 25, of Ottawa, and his girlfriend, Joanna Lam, 24, of Ontario, on September 10 last year. 

The inquest heard that the couple had been turned away that day from a Haast camping ground, which was closed because of bad weather.

They decided to drive to the nearest town, Wanaka, two hours away, but turned back near the pass to return to Haast.

Other motorists heading up the pass saw the campervan about 8pm. It was pulling up to the opposite side of a landslide across State Highway 6, about half a kilometre from Diana Falls at an area called The Trickle.

Haast policeman Senior Constable Robin Manera told the inquest in the Greymouth District Court that police believed the couple had turned a second time to head back to Wanaka.

However, a second landslide about 800m from the first swept them to their deaths.

Dunedin coroner David Crerar said today's inquest was to certify their deaths, particularly for Hayes because his body had never been found.

He found the pair died of high-energy impact injuries suffered when their campervan was struck "by an avalanche of trees, rocks and associated debris" near Diana Falls.

Manera said the pair were reported missing on September 16 after Lam failed to turn up to work as a sonographer at Nelson Hospital. The pair had arrived in New Zealand on September 2.

On September 17, an aerial search located their rented campervan in the Haast River about 400m to 500m downstream from a landslip.

Lam's body was located three days later 6km north of the river mouth, which was 55km from the accident scene, he said.

Extensive searches failed to find Hayes.

Manera said the pair had picked up the rental campervan on September 9 from Nelson to do some travelling and spent the next day on a guided walk at Fox Glacier before heading to the Haast Top 10 Holiday Park about 4.45pm.

Its manager, Norma Dougan, told Lam the camping ground was closed because of a severe wind warning.

Lam asked her for the location of the next town, saying her priority was to find internet access to contact her family and employer.

Dougan told her Wanaka was the next town and two hours away.

About an hour later, another couple arrived at the camping ground after driving over the pass and told her the road's conditions were terrifying.

"They felt they were lucky to have arrived," Dougan said.

Before Hayes and Lam left Haast to drive to Wanaka, they had dinner at a pub, paying for their meal at 5.35pm.

Haast resident Dayna Buchanan told the inquest she drove out of Haast with her mother about 6.30pm on September 10, heading to Dunedin, and caught up to a campervan at Snapshot Creek, near the township. She followed it up the hill toward the pass.

Driving conditions were the worst she had ever experienced, she said.

At the Gates of Haast Bridge, she lost sight of the campervan because she had to stop to clear sticks stuck under her car.

Another motorist helped her and roading contractor William Caird led them in his work vehicle up the pass after she asked him to escort her.

They passed Diana Falls on the way, which was "pumping out over the road" but she was too scared to go back and pressed on.

However, they were forced to stop at a slip across the road.

She could see a campervan on the opposite side, its headlights facing them, but was unable to tell whether it was the same campervan as the one she had followed.

She got out of her car, as did the other motorist, who flashed a torch at it but got no response.

They all turned around and returned to Haast, leaving the van behind.

The next day, she told her boss that she was worried about whether the campervan had got through and he suggested she tell police, which she did.

Caird told the inquest that he worked for Ferguson Brothers. Part of his job was to inspect and maintain the pass in bad weather.

When he deemed the road conditions too dangerous, he would contact Opus to close the road.

On the evening of September 10, it was raining heavily and he had been out on the road clearing grilles of debris and sweeping the road.

At 7.30pm, he said he called Paul Wilson to close the road.

Afterwards, he drove up near to the Gates of Haast Bridge and was there for about half an hour putting up closed signs for anyone still travelling north.

While there, the campervan drove past him. Buchanan, who stopped to clear wood from under her car, followed.

About 400m-500m past Diana Falls, they came across an impassable slip.

"I don't think it had been down long as there was water just starting to come through."

He turned around while Buchanan and the other motorist got out of their cars, before also heading down the pass.

Bernie and Kath Monk, whose son Michael, 24, died in the Pike River coalmine disaster, represented the Hayes family at the hearing. The families had met while the Hayeses were in New Zealand in October.

A statement by Hayes' father, Michael Hayes, was read by Kath Monk, and expressed his gratitude for the support from New Zealand over the loss of his son.

He planned to return for the next part of the inquest, it said.

Coroner Crerar adjourned the hearing, saying circumstances surrounding the deaths would be covered at a later inquest hearing that would also cover road conditions.

Fairfax Media