Sky glows as community remembers
LEIGHTON KEITH, BLANTON SMITH AND JOHN ANTHONY
LATEST: The sky glowed above New Plymouth's Back Beach last night as almost 1000 people lit candles for two students and a climbing instructor who were swept away by heavy seas on Wednesday.
There was standing room only at the Back Beach top carpark as people of all ages turned out to remember the three, who are presumed drowned.
The missing are Joao Felipe Martins De Melo, 17, an international student from Brazil, Spotswood College student Stephen Lewis Kahukaka-Gedye, 17, and Bryce John Jourdain, a 42-year-old Topec instructor originally from Whangerei.
On Wednesday night Witt graphics design student April McDonald, 17, set up a Facebook event inviting people to attend a candlelight vigil for the three missing.
"It shows that they were really loved and a lot of people cared for them," April said.
April remembered Felipe as being a "funny, cool" guy.
The vigil attracted students from a range Taranaki schools as well as parents with babies, police holding candles and New Plymouth mayor Harry Duynhoven.
"I wanted to do something to bring everyone together and let them know we're all here for them," April said.
The turnout spoke volumes for the community spirit in Taranaki, she said.
"I think it's good having everyone coming together at a time of need.
"We stand up for each other and help each other out."
About 200 candles were donated by Spotswood Countdown supermarket and The Warehouse and were distributed to those who came without.
At 8pm everyone gathered in close for a karakia followed by a Maori song, the national anthem and a haka.
Some people then shared their thoughts and feelings with the crowd.
Taranaki kaumatua Hemi Pokere, who was watching over the gathering, said while the intentions of the vigil were good, it was an inappropriate time for it.
"As you can hear, the Tangaroa (god of the sea) is at peace now," Mr Pokere said.
"That's what we need so the rescuers can get on with their job."
The Paritutu site where the tragedy happened had been blessed but Back Beach had not, he said.
"The vigil is appropriate but it should be done at the right time."
As the night went on, people separated into small groups to remember the missing three in silence.
Search and rescue efforts for the two missing students and their climbing instructor are now a body recovery operation, police say.
The search was called off at 4.30pm today and will resume again tomorrow morning at 7am, but all hope of finding the trio alive is gone, Incident Controller Inspector Frank Grant said.
"The reality is it is turning in to a recovery operation now," he said.
The Thursday search
Five inflatable rescue boats, the South Taranaki coastguard, Cape Rescue boat, an Air Force Iroquois, Taranaki community rescue helicopter, Shell-Todd helicopter, Land Search and Rescue staff and police were all involved in today's operation.
Mr Grant said the search had focused on a 4km stretch of coast from Omata to Tapuae, south of Paritutu Rock, a went to a depth of about 25m.
The national police diving squad decided against entering the water today because of heavy swells and will re-assess again at 7am tomorrow, Mr Grant said.
Earlier today police released the names of the two students and Topec instructor who went missing after being swept into the sea near Paritutu Rock yesterday have been released.
They are Joao Felipe Martins De Melo, 17, an international student from Fortaleza, on the North-East coast of Brazil, Spotswood College Stephen Lewis Kahukaka-Gedye, 17, and Bryce John Jourdain, a 42-year-old Topec instructor originally from Whangerei.
Search and rescues efforts are continuing today after the trio went missing about 1.30pm yesterday police said.
Two Facebook tribute sites have been formed since the story broke yesterday, one site titled Candles of Support is an event page which plans to hold a tribute at Back Beach tonight at 8pm.
The other, titled Our hopes will stay strong for the missing, is a cause page with over 2000 likes.
Messages of support for the missing three have been appearing since the page was formed about 10pm last night.
International student Felipe has been in New Zealand since January.
According to his father, Célio Fernando Bezerra Melo, he planned to return to Fortaleza in October.
Célio and his family received the news of the accident last night from the company that runs the exchange.
One of Felipe's uncle has travelled to New Zealand while the rest of the family is in Fortaleza praying, Celio told Brazilian media.
"We are waiting for news, we are optimistic because no one found anything. We have to pray and hope that everything goes right," he told OPOVO.
His father said the family hoped he was on an island awaiting rescue.
A profile on the Topec website said Mr Jourdain joined the centre from NorthTech in Whangarei where he was a tutor in Outdoor Education.
"Bryce is determined to become Taranaki Hardcore but he has a way to go yet. Bryce is always heading out and about discovering new and amazing places," it reads.
Mr Jourdain holds NZOIA rock 1, first aid, Certificate in Adult Tertiary Teaching qualification has extensive Bush and sea kayaking experience.
At present he is working towards his raft guide and kayaking qualifications.
"Bryce is also experienced in caving, hunting and surf and has a strong understanding of Tikanga Maori and Te Reo. Bryce has been a great addition to the team and he has slotted right in - one of his best kept secrets that few people know that he is past finalist of Survivor Brazil."
Hundreds of online comments have been posted to the tribute sites overnight and today.
In them Stephen Gedye is described as a strong, smart young man.
"Stephen Gedye - kia kaha .. Ur a fighter cuz.. I know u will souljah on and stick it out until the morning. love u and just wish we knew u were safe!! It kills me that this has happened and there is nothing we can do but pray!! Everyone please pray for the return of 3 people missing.. U boys have loving and worried families waiting on ur return ," a comment from the site said.
Topec has since begun an internal investigation into the tragedy.
Today, TSB Topec board chair David Grigg said in a statement the centre's thoughts and prayers were with those missing and for their families.
"It is also a difficult time for us with a much valued and respected colleague still unaccounted for," he said.
"As the search is continuing, our focus is on supporting those affected by the incident."
Mr Grigg said Topec were cooperating fully with all of the relevant authorities to fully ascertain the circumstances surrounding the event.
"We are also conducting our own internal investigation. We wish to thank all of those people who have sent expressions of support and aroha to all of the staff at TOPEC at this difficult time."
After being called off at 9pm last night the search resumed this morning, Incident Controller Inspector Frank Grant said.
An Air Force Iroquois helicopter has arrived and the Police National Dive Squad are expected later this morning, Mr Grant said.
"We have four inflatable rescue boats (IRBs) searching the Port area. Two rescue vessels are out on the water searching. More than 20 Police personnel and Taranaki Land SAR volunteers have resumed a shoreline search and the Taranaki Community Rescue Helicopter is also assisting in an aerial search."
"Sea conditions are still rough with a high swell. We will continue undertaking an extensive and thorough search throughout the course of the day. Hopes of finding the three alive are fading, however we remain optimistic this morning."
The lower Paritutu car park and the walking track to the top of Paritutu are closed to the public, due to the search and rescue operation in the area.
Trio missing after falling from Paritutu Rock
Yesterday, two Spotswood College students and a Topec instructor were swept away by raging seas while rock climbing on Paritutu.
Inspector Frank Grant said given the cold sea conditions, it was unlikely the trio would survive the night.
"Given the time the three would have spent in the water we hold grave fears for their safety, however we do remain optimistic," Mr Grant said.
The drama began at 1.20pm yesterday when a group of 11 year 13 students and two Topec instructors were rock climbing at the base of Paritutu.
The exercise turned disastrous when three students fell into the sea.
One student managed to cling onto rocks while an instructor jumped into the sea to try rescue the other two students.
Sea conditions were rough with waves of up to three metres crashing on to rocks.
The boy who clung to rocks was winched out by the Taranaki Community Rescue Helicopter and taken to Taranaki Base Hospital where he was treated for hypothermia and discharged.
The remaining nine members of the group were also airlifted to TBH and discharged shortly after.
The three missing hadn't been seen since shortly after falling in, Mr Grant said.
Taranaki Community Rescue helicopter crewmen braved treacherous conditions to make 10 rescue trips.
Crewman Phil Dwyer said it was a particularly difficult job.
"The waves were breaking really hard up against the bottom of Paritutu," Mr Dwyer said.
"The water was just white with whitewash so you couldn't see anything or anyone in the water really."
Mr Dwyer said the group was stranded about eight metres from the bottom of Paritutu and couldn't move.
"They were in a really difficult place to winch out of, the main issue was getting in close to the rock face," he said.
"They were in a position where the water was hitting the bottom of the rocks and they were getting hit by the spray from the waves."
Mr Dwyer said it was a good feeling getting the group to safety.
"It was a good thing to get them off definitely, they were in a situation where their lives were in danger."
St John operations manager Ian May said one of the patients, a 17-year-old boy, had fallen into the water but managed to climb on to the rocks before being rescued.
The boy was treated for moderate hypothermia by a St John paramedic, he said.
Another eight patients were treated for mild hypothermia.
The ordeal comes in the 25th year of Topec's existence, a year in which they are celebrating the success of their pursuits centre in the region.
Topec prides itself on its adventure programmes and through its website says it aims to challenge through risk.
"We have a clear and structured Professional Development system that ensures that our staff are well qualified, current and experienced," the website says.
Outdoors NZ (ONZ) said it was shocked and saddened by the tragedy.
"As the representative organisation for the New Zealand outdoor sector, our heartfelt thoughts go to the families, friends and colleagues of the Spotswood College students and Topec instructor missing after the traverse of Paritutu today," said ONZ chief executive Garth Dawson.
"Outdoors NZ will be working closely with Topec and the authorities to establish what lies behind today's events, to support those involved and make sure that any lessons are learned and improvements made.
"Topec is a well-respected, long-established organisation with a good safety record," said Mr Dawson. "We know they will be devastated by today's tragedy."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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