Outlook for Canadian couple appears bleak

BLAIR ENSOR AND JOELLE DALLY
Last updated 05:00 19/09/2013
Connor Hayes and Joanna Lam
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MISSING: Police believe Canadians Connor Hayes and Joanna Lam were swept into a river while driving through a storm.

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Prospects that Connor Hayes and Joanna Lam will be found alive are "not looking good", police say.

The young Canadian couple are presumed dead after their rented campervan was swept over a cliff by a landslide into a raging West Coast river.

Inspector John Canning said search crews were desperately looking for any sign of the couple, because the weather was expected to turn bad this afternoon.

"We are finding debris on the beach north of the Haast River mouth," Canning said.

"It [the couple being washed out to sea] is a very real possibility, but it's not a fact.

"[Their chances of survival] is definitely bleak."

Ground, sea and helicopter searches were all under way. He expected an update early this afternoon.

Jeffrey Lam today continued to hope that his sister would be found - alive or dead - so the family could have closure.

"I miss her smile. I want her to come home for her birthday [next week] so that everybody can smile with her."

Lam said from Ontario that his parents were struggling to come to grips with what had happened to their daughter and "are really in pain".

"They are not doing well ... especially being so far away and not being able to control anything."

He thanked search and rescue crews who continued to look for the couple today.

"From the bottom of my heart, I want to express some gratitude. [Please] continue these efforts. We just want some sort of closure to bring them home," he said.

While bad weather forced some motorists to turn back, it appears Hayes, 25, and Lam, 24, continued driving east through Haast Pass in dark, stormy conditions last Tuesday.

They were last seen at Fox Glacier earlier that day, but the alarm was raised only this week when Lam failed to turn up for work.

Their families had clung to hope the couple would be found alive despite haunting images emerging yesterday of their wrecked van wrapped around a boulder.

However, police delivered the news late yesterday that will have broken their hearts.

They believe the couple made it through the Diana Falls area of State Highway 6, where there was a major slip later in the night, but "in all likelihood" were hit by another landslide further east.

"The chances of finding someone alive down there are pretty remote now," Canning told The Press.

"Things are not looking good for the survival of the pair."

Police would be talking to the coroner.

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Michael Hayes is flying to New Zealand to help look for his son, while family wait anxiously for news back home.

The couple arrived in the country on September 2 and had travelled around the North Island before heading south.

Lam was due to start a six-month placement at Nelson Hospital on Monday. She would have been working as a medical imaging specialist in the radiology department.

Hayes planned to return to Canada after making sure she was settled in the role. He was training to be a police officer.

The couple had been together about two years and were living in Ottawa, Ontario, before the trip.

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

"We are just hoping . . . that something comes to fruition that gives us an answer to move forward," he said.

The family last heard from his sister on September 8.

The couple were enjoying the country's beautiful scenery, she wrote in an email.

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

He described his sister, who would turn 25 next week, as a free spirit with a bubbly personality.

"The most captivating thing about my sister has to be her smile. She treated the world as her oyster," he said.

Christina Hayes said family members were waiting anxiously for word of her nephew's fate.

They were "incredibly worried" but were "praying for a safe return", she said.

Search and rescue crews resumed their search for the pair this morning downstream from the crash site and along the West Coast near the river mouth.

A helicopter with specialist heat-seeking equipment and a search dog from Christchurch have been added to the team.

The couple's van, a Volkswagen hired in Nelson, was found "totally demolished by the water" in the riverbed on Tuesday, the chassis wrapped around a rock near the Gates of Haast bridge.

Debris was found downstream and a petrol tank was found washed ashore about 7 kilometres up the coast from the river mouth.

Police believed the couple's plan was to travel south to Otago and up the east coast to Nelson.

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

The locals turned back because of the weather after following the van for a short time.

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

The waters in the gorge were running about 6 metres higher than yesterday.

The NZ Transport Agency said the pass was closed at 8pm on Tuesday last week, so the couple would not have breached road closures.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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