Father broods over couple's ordeal

DEVASTATED: Connor's father, Michael Hayes.
DEVASTATED: Connor's father, Michael Hayes.

Gut-wrenching questions haunt Michael Hayes and keep him awake at night.

The worst is how long his son, Connor Hayes, 25, and girlfriend Joanna Lam, 24, spent desperately trying to reach safety in torrential rain, thunder and lightning last September 10 before a landslide claimed their lives.

"We don't know when Pipson Creek slip happened. It might have been 8.30pm, 9.30pm, 10.30pm or even 3am the next day. That's our worst nightmare," he says from his home in Ottawa. "It's a loop that keeps playing in your head."

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.

The Canadian tourists were only reported missing six days later, after Lam failed to turn up for her new job at Nelson Hospital.

Police found their wrecked campervan's chassis the next day, on September 17, in the Haast River, downstream from a large landslide at Pipson Creek, near the top of Haast Pass.

Lam's body was found on the beach 6km north of the river mouth, 55km from the wreckage, on September 20. Hayes' body has not been found.

Dunedin coroner David Crerar adjourned an inquest into their deaths nine days ago, but found they died after an "avalanche of trees, rocks and associated debris" hit their campervan that night.

Circumstances surrounding the tragedy would be examined more fully at a later date, including road safety issues and whether the road should have been closed.

The hearing revealed a very different scenario to what the grieving families initially believed had occurred that stormy West Coast evening.

"We had found comfort that it would have been quick. They're driving along and bang, they get hit."

Haast local Dayna Buchanan told the hearing she left Haast about 6.30 that night with her mother and followed a large campervan towards the pass, both vehicles dodging sticks and debris on the road.

She pulled over to clear a branch from under her car at the Gates of Haast Bridge, helped by another motorist, Timothy Mee, while the campervan carried on uphill.

Buchanan said she asked a roading contractor, who was working at the bridge and had closed the road about half an hour earlier, to escort them to the pass.

They followed him in his road-sweeping truck but about half a kilometre past Diana Falls, which were pumping out across the road, a fresh landslip blocked the highway at an area called The Trickle, named for two waterfalls flowing beside the road.

Senior Constable Robin Manera, of Haast, told the hearing they saw a campervan pull up on the opposite side of the slip.

Buchanan believed it was a different campervan but police investigations proved it was the Canadians', he said.

Hayes' father believes his son and girlfriend found the road to the pass blocked so turned around to return to Haast but were prevented by the impassable slip at The Trickle, 800m from Pipson Creek towards Haast.

He said while the contractor turned around to head back to Haast, Buchanan and Mee got out of their cars to try to get the campervan occupants' attention.

Buchanan said she "wasn't game enough" to walk across the slip.

"Mr Mee flashed his torch at them and shouted at them to turn around. He received no response," Manera said.

With that, all three returned to Haast, leaving the campervan alone.

That plagues Hayes, who is devastated that no-one launched a rescue attempt that night, which may have saved the couple's lives.

"If the people at hand didn't feel comfortable attempting to do a rescue, then someone should have been notified to do it."

The morning after the storm, Buchanan told police she feared for the trapped campervan, which prompted police to ensure the road was checked but no sign of a campervan was found.

Hayes plans to return to New Zealand to attend the resumed inquest and to get answers to his questions, including about protocols for closing state highways in extreme weather and assisting stranded motorists.

New Zealand Transport Agency, the road controlling authority, has a policy for state highway emergencies that states it has a "duty of care if we know someone is stranded".

It notes that all stranded vehicles must be rechecked to ensure no-one is abandoned if road closure clearance and supervision activities cease for the night.

Hayes is concerned because he said the the road had been officially closed for half an hour before his son and girlfriend drove past the roading contractor but they were not stopped and no signs indicated the road was shut.

"Blaming people isn't going to bring Connor and Joanna back but at the same time, I think there were some serious gaps in protocol.

"If the inquest determines that mistakes were made on September 10, 2013, it is our hope that measures will be implemented to ensure that they are not repeated and that no other parents suffer the loss of their children."

The Press