Driven 'by a look in the eyes'

'It's sad, but I guess the hand had been dealt'

HANNAH FLEMING
Last updated 05:00 31/12/2012
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Andy Cronin

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Lifesaving New Zealand club development officer Andy Cronin is the second of our five nominees for the 2012 Taranaki Daily News Person of the Year award. Reporter Hannah Fleming has interviewed each of the finalists and their profiles appear this week before the winner is announced on New Year's Day.

The look in people's eyes when they realise you are their only hope for survival is something Andy Cronin lives with.

It happened over and over as he helped winch 10 stranded people from Paritutu on August 8. His regret is that they were too late to find and rescue the three who were battered by the heavy seas on that tragic afternoon.

"Being able to see that look on someone's face, but actually having the opportunity to change it and make a difference, is pretty powerful."

As well as being part of the Taranaki Community Rescue Helicopter marine team, Mr Cronin co-ordinated the lifeguards and volunteers who searched tirelessly for the missing men.

After three weeks on the water, he says those involved eventually had to accept they had done all they could.

"Failure's probably the wrong word, but it's the right word in a sense. We set out to find those guys, hopefully alive in the first instance, and we weren't able to do that. We weren't able to return all three."

Mr Cronin says the surf that day was big. They could see beneath the surface from the chopper but close to the rocks, the ocean was a mess.

"It was like a washing machine. We were looking down and we couldn't see anyone surviving down there.

"It's so sad, but I guess the hand had been dealt."

Searching for three weeks made it hard to switch off, Mr Cronin says.

And he never stopped wondering.

"You're always trying to think where they could possibly be and where they would have gone in relation to what the conditions were doing. You get to a point where you start to question - could we have got in closer, could we have done this, or that?

"But what we were going through was nothing compared to what the families were going through, so..."

The three-time IRB world champion says he was merely one man in a mission run by many - from Sergeant Andrew Ross and his search and rescue team, to the rescue helicopter crew, the volunteers, and those whose donations enabled emergency services to have the equipment for a thorough operation.

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"I was just the dope on the rope. I'm the last link on that chain."

He speaks of the Hurworth Hall Society who gave $30,000 last year to the volunteer rescue team for a new boat and self-protection equipment.

"Them buying into us a year ago has made us feel we've made a difference, or that we can at least try to make a difference.

"If they hadn't done that, we would have done something, but nowhere near the scale we did."

He also acknowledges the family members who let their loved ones risk their lives for others.

"It's all well and good for us to be out driving around in a rubber boat, but we've all got wives and parents who sit at home worrying about us.

"Them sitting at home waiting for us to come back is a lot harder than anything we ever have to do."

In his club development role with surf lifesaving, Mr Cronin has been pivotal in pushing beach education to prevent further casualties in the region's waters.

There have been five drownings in Taranaki so far this year and he says that is heartbreaking.

"As lifeguards we spend our time trying to educate people and prevent them from drowning. We'd rather not be rescuing, it's about that education and prevention side.

"It's always sad when people die because that's what we're here for. That's why we set up patrol in the weekends, that's why we train and do what we do."

The Paritutu tragedy made August a bittersweet month for Mr Cronin, whose first son, Archie, was born on the 31st.

"It's been an interesting year in terms of personal challenges and how you come to see the world. It's awesome to have a baby and I'm quite happy for that to happen again, but I hope the tragedies don't happen again.

"If you can stop the families from having to go through that, that's the ultimate. To stop them having to lose kids, because it's not the right way round."

- Taranaki Daily News

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