Nurse's 'lucky' sinkhole plunge

Last updated 08:52 07/02/2014
Jill Clendon
ON THE MEND: Jill Clendon of Stoke rests up after sustaining cuts and bruises after she fell down a tomo, or sinkhole ,on the Takaka Hill.
HIDDEN DANGER: Ngarua Caves worker Evelyn Dalzell points out the tomo that Jill Clendon spent four hours trapped inside.

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Nursing a bashed head and bleeding knee at the bottom of a 10m sinkhole, surrounded by cave wetas and animal skeletons, Jill Clendon realised her luck.

"Lotto tickets for sure," the 44-year-old Nelson nurse said from her Enner Glynn home this morning, reflecting on her dramatic rescue from a tomo, or limestone sinkhole, atop the Takaka Hill yesterday.

"I don't think I can underestimate how lucky I actually was. It's just incredible I didn't break something, or knock myself out.

"There were quite jagged rocks at the bottom - God knows how I missed them all."

Dr Clendon, who is president of the Nelson Orienteering Club, was checking on an event course near Ngarua Caves when the earth gave way beneath her.

"We've been using the Ngarua map for a number of years and we are very aware of the tomos up there. We have the ones that we are aware of very clearly marked on the map.

"We were being very very cautious about it," she said.

She said tomos were usually able to be seen lurking beneath trees and shrubs, with root systems that visibly dropped into the ground. This un-marked tomo, however, was hidden beneath a layer of top-soil and grass before it swallowed Dr Clendon.

"I went straight down, about five metres, and hit a sloping shelf which rolled off quite steeply for another three to four metres, then dropped another metre and half into the bottom of the cave," she said.

"It was quite dark, and I was in a hole at the bottom of the cave," she said.

"There was a calf skeleton and a sheep skeleton, just little animals really. And a few wetas hanging around to keep me company.

"I managed to stay calm through the whole thing, but I think it would have been really easy to get anxious about it."

Dr Clendon's companion Karen Monahan realised something was wrong when she looked back and couldn't see her friend.

"She heard me yelling from under the ground," Dr Clendon said.

"She laughed, and I said, ‘I don't think it's funny'.

"She asked if I was okay, and I said ‘I don't think I've broken anything but I'm going to need some help getting out of here."

Luckily, Dr Clendon was in training for an adventure race and had "literally the kitchen sink" with her, in terms of survival gear.

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"I was able to pull on a polypropylene top and a woollen hat and a jacket and an emergency blanket."

Although it was quite dark she was able to see with her head torch on. The nurse dressed her scrapes and cuts with a small first aid kit that had tumbled into the tomo with her.

She activated a personal locator beacon, and sent Mrs Monahan to raise the alarm.

"That just seemed to take forever. It was really, really cold."

She was down in the tomo for four hours before a six-strong caving rescue team arrived to extract her.

It then took just 20 minutes for the rescuers to lower ropes into the tomo and pull out Dr Clendon.

Caving expert Kieran McKay said Dr Clendon was lucky to have only fallen 10 metres.

He said there were sinkholes all "over over the place" on Takaka Hill, and it was not unusual to find animal skeletons in their depths.

"It's natural, stock wander around and fall as well," he said.

Mr McKay praised Dr Clendon's actions.

"She did the right thing, she was there with someone else who knew she was missing, and she had a personal locator beacon so could send an alert for help."

He said she was also lucky to have "the best rescue team in New Zealand" to help her out of the hole.

Today Dr Clendon was resting, recovering, and reflecting on her good fortune.

"I keep finding new scrapes and new bruises, particularly on my head, my head took quite a bash."

But, it could have been so much worse, she said.

"There were so many things that went right out of a situation that went wrong."

- Nelson

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