Inquest details devastate father

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 father is devastated to learn his son desperately tried to flee Haast Pass during a huge storm before two landslides blocked his escape and swept him and his girlfriend to their deaths.

Details about the tragedy were revealed yesterday at an inquest for Connor Hayes, 25, of Ottawa, and his girlfriend, Joanna Lam, 24, of Ontario, who died on September 10.

"Everything that could have gone right to save them went wrong," Hayes' father, Michael Hayes, told The Press from his home in Ottawa after the inquest.

DEVASTATED: Michael Hayes.
DEVASTATED: Michael Hayes.

He was upset to learn three motorists, including a roading contractor who managed Haast Pass, saw the pair trapped by the first landslide near the pass but failed to notify authorities that night to ensure they reached safety.

One motorist, Dayna Buchanan, said she told Haast police the next day that she was worried whether the van got through the pass safely.

However, no-one knew the tourists were missing until September 16, when Lam failed to turn up to work in Nelson.

The next morning, police discovered their van's wreck in the Haast River about half a kilometre downstream from the second landslide at Pipson Creek. Lam's body was found three days later, 6km north of the river mouth, which was 55km from the crash scene, but searches failed to find Hayes.

Michael Hayes said his family had hoped the pair were killed swiftly but the new information made them realise they had feared for their lives in their final minutes.

"It is a parent's worst nightmare that Connor and Joanna came to the slip, realised that their way to safety was blocked and essentially that they had a period of time that they knew that ‘this isn't going well for us'. It must have been an awful feeling.

"This is a case of where the more information that we've been provided and the more the story firms itself up, for the lack of a better word, the more upsetting it is."

Senior Constable Robin Manera, of Haast, told the inquest in the Greymouth District Court yesterday the pair had driven from the southern West Coast township heading across Haast Pass en route to Wanaka on September 10.

Buchanan had followed their campervan about 6.30pm toward the pass but lost sight of them at the Gates of Haast Bridge, where she stopped to clear debris from under her car. She got a roading contractor, William Caird, to escort her from there up to the pass, along with another motorist but a slip at The Trickle, about 500m past Diana Falls, blocked their way about 8pm.

They spotted a campervan facing them on the opposite side of the slip and tried to get their attention using a torch but got no response so the three motorists headed back to Haast.

Manera said police believed the tourists had turned back while heading to the pass but turned around again when they found their way back to Haast was blocked, only to be killed by a slip about 800m away soon afterwards.

The pair had earlier been turned away from Haast Top 10 Holiday Camp, which was closed because of the bad weather, so they decided they would head to Wanaka after eating at a local pub about 5.35pm.

Hayes said he wished someone had told the young couple to stay in Haast, rather than brave the pass in such bad weather.

"It breaks my heart that someone didn't say, ‘Bugger it, I'm going to go across the slip to the van, knock on their window and tell them to leave the van and come with us'."

He believed someone should have contacted authorities as soon as they could that night to warn that the campervan was trapped at least in one direction by a slip on the pass.

The Press