A coroner's verdict that New Zealand Warriors rugby league player Sonny Fai had drowned has brought closure to his family, his sister said today.
Chief coroner Judge Neil MacLean found that Fai drowned at Auckland's Bethells Beach on January 4. He disappeared into the surf after going to the rescue of his brother Gillespie who was caught in a rip. His body has not been found.
"Sonny Fai died when he succumbed to the surf conditions and drowned, despite extensive and intensive efforts of recovery," he said at an inquest in Auckland Coroner's Court today.
Judge MacLean recommended there should be an emergency telephone on the beach, and he would forward the inquest findings to Telecom. Cellphone coverage in the area is patchy and the lack of a landline phone could cause problems in an emergency.
After today's inquest, Fai's sister Lalelei spoke on behalf of her mother Tausili and father Falelua, and the rest of her extended family, who were all at court today.
She thanked Judge MacLean, the police, Westpac rescue helicopters and the surf lifesavers.
"I know it's hard but it's closure for our family. This is the next step for us to move forward.
"Sonny won't be forgotten in our hearts but having my whole family here makes us know we've got the support and the strength to pull through this, and I know that's what Sonny would have wanted," she said.
She also thanked Fai's lawyer Sandy Anderson and his manager Peter Brown, who, she said, had helped the family through this difficult time.
"I think it's really hit us today that he's gone. The body has not been found, but it's just a vessel to us and we know that he's still with us," she said.
She added that she thought Judge MacLean's recommendation of installing an emergency telephone on the beach was a good idea.
Ms Fai said she agreed there was a lack of education around safety in the water.
" My cousins probably thought it was a calm spot, not knowing it was very dangerous.
"Education about understanding the water is very important for each and every one of us, especially Pacific Islanders, who are known to be good swimmers. It's about knowing the risks and the signs to be aware of to be safe in the water.
"I'd like to help promote that, and prevent others from being in the same situation my brother was in," she said.
Ms Fai said the family still regularly visits Bethells Beach as it felt like Fai was there.
Judge MacLean said today it was the scene of yet another tragedy.
"Bethells Beach is a beautiful location and a location that has for many years been a dangerous one in terms of water hazards.
"Sonny Fai was a fit young man in the prime of his life who got into difficulty in the surf," Mr MacLean said.
The inquest heard that Fai had been exercising on the Beach as part of his pre-season training, before he got into the water with some of his relatives.
Judge MacLean said Fai perished because he put the interests of his 13-year-old brother Gillespie before himself.
"He was a strong man but he was not a strong swimmer," Mr MacLean said.
He added that Fai's family had acknowledged to police in late February that it was a lost cause and they had to accept the inevitable.
Mr MacLean said it was a myth that a death certificate for a missing person could not be issued until after seven years.
The inquest's finding could be enough proof for a $630,000 NRL insurance payout to the family.
Warriors chief executive Wayne Scurrah said the inquest would bring closure to the Fai family, but he would not comment on details of any insurance payout.
"I'm aware of the NRL insurance policy which Sonny is covered under, but certainly from the family's point of view I'm delighted they have some closure today," Mr Scurrah said.