Top award for rescue of trapped teens

LEIGHTON KEITH
Last updated 05:00 08/05/2013
Taranaki Community Rescue Helicopter's marine team
CAMERON BURNELL/Fairfax NZ

TRUST, TRAINING, TEAMWORK: The Taranaki Community Rescue Helicopter's marine team, from left, Andy Cronin, Jayden Strickland and Phil Dwyer received New Zealand's highest search and rescue award last night.

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Battling extreme weather conditions to pluck 10 people from Paritutu rock has earned the Taranaki Community Rescue Helicopter the country's top search and rescue honour.

On August 8, the service's marine rescue crew of pilot Alan Deal, winch operator Phil Dwyer, and crewmen Andy Cronin and Jayden Strickland braved surging seas, with swells of up to three metres, to pull the group to safety after a Topec rock climbing exercise turned to tragedy.

Despite the best efforts of emergency services, three people - two Spotswood College students and a Topec instructor who disappeared into the churning sea - drowned.

Last night the team received the New Zealand Search And Rescue Council's gold award for the most significant contribution to search and rescue in New Zealand.

Mr Dwyer said it was humbling to receive the award, which he believed belonged to everyone involved.

"It was a huge team effort involving the police, ambulance, coastguard, search and rescue, surf life savers and the whole community," the 32-year-old said.

"Through that whole week I've never seen all of the emergency services and community come together and put in so much effort.

"Everybody played a part right down to the members of the public who scoured the coastline for days looking for the missing three."

Mr Cronin was left with mixed emotions after the rescue.

"It was awesome that those 10 people were back with their families but it was bittersweet that there were three more families that didn't get their loved ones back alive."

Mr Strickland co-ordinated communications between the police, St John ambulance and the helicopter crew.

Arriving at the scene, the crew were confronted with surging and dumping seas and an unknown number of people in the water.

The crew's initial focus was to try to find the three people missing in the water, Mr Dwyer said.

"There was so much going on, there were people on the rocks and people missing in the water.

"We were hoping that there were survivors but with the conditions, we knew that the chances were slim."

After half an hour spent searching the turbulent Tasman Sea the focus then shifted to the group stranded on the rock, Mr Strickland said.

"I remember the concern coming from the crew about moving into the rescue phase. The conditions that day were terrible," he said.

Mr Dwyer was responsible for directing the pilot into the best position and operating the winch lowering Mr Cronin down on to the rocks to retrieve those stranded.

Mr Cronin said he kept a close eye on conditions as he dangled below the chopper.

"I remember I was about 10 foot off the rocks heading down and looking out to sea just thinking, far out, it was big," the 31-year-old said.

"What happens if I have to go into that?"

The crew credits trust, training and teamwork for the operation's success.

Mr Cronin said they trained for these situations and had confidence in each other.

"It is trusting the team you are working with, you can't be distracted worrying about what the other guys are doing. If you are distracted by that then you are not doing your own problem."

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In 2010 the rescue helicopter also received the NZSAR Council's gold award for its efforts in battling three-metre swells while lowering a paramedic to a fisherman trapped at the base of a 30-metre cliff near the Patea river mouth in February 2009.

The Opunake Boating Club, Cape Egmont Sea Rescue, South Taranaki Coastguard, Taranaki Police SAR squad and Opunake Surf Life Saving Club received the NZSAR Council's certificate of achievement for the rescue of two fishermen in the middle of the night from their stricken boat 700m off the Opunake coast.

A third man, Jason Rankin, had swum back to shore and raised the alarm after their dinghy's motor failed.

BRAVE RESCUES

Other NZSAR certificates of achievement were awarded to:

Landsar Wanaka and the Wanaka police Landsar squad for their efforts to rescue 15-year-old Dion Latta, who was trapped by an ankle in the Motatapu Gorge in Otago on New Year's Day, 2012.

Dion, who later died in Dunedin Hospital, had been trapped on the edge of a three-metre waterfall, leaving him upside down and fully submerged, although able to breathe in an air pocket.

"One team member was in the water holding Dion's hand and communicating with him throughout the entire rescue operation," NZSAR said.

"To rescue Dion volunteers created a human dam, to break the water flow, so that another team member could go under water and free the trapped leg."

By the time Dion was freed, unconscious and hypothermic, it was dark and rescuers were using head torches and handheld lights.

Cape Egmont Sea Rescue, Coastguard South Taranaki, Opunake Boating Club, Opunake Surf Life Saving Club, and Taranaki police Sar squad for the rescue of two fishermen at Opunake on February 22, 2012.

Three boats went out in horrendous conditions in the middle of the night to rescue the two fishermen from their stricken boat about 700m off the South Taranaki coast.

The rescue was described as one of the most perilous runs in the central police district in recent years.

Bruce Joy, Mark Cannell, Russell Clarke and Steve Oliver from the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust for their efforts during the Frolic III rescue on March 3, 2012.

The yacht Frolic III was caught in a massive storm.

Mr Clarke, a rescue swimmer, was winched on to the yacht's liferaft, which the lone sailor had been instructed to move to, in dangerous conditions.

He secured the sailor to the rescue harness and they were both winched back up to the helicopter.

Russell (Sherp) Tucker from New Zealand Police for services to search and rescue.

Gerard Prins from New Zealand Police for services to search and rescue.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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