Missing Canadian couple presumed dead
JOELLE DALLY, BLAIR ENSOR, OLIVIA CARVILLE AND NICOLE MATHEWSON
Missing Canadians Connor Hayes and Joanna Lam are presumed dead after their rented campervan was hit by a slip in stormy conditions and plunged off the road into the Haast River, police say.
While other vehicles turned back because of the weather, it appeared the couple had continued driving along the Haast Pass highway during the storm on Tuesday last week.
At a media briefing in Greymouth this afternoon, West Coast area commander Inspector John Canning said police were now looking for their bodies.
Hayes, 25, and Lam, 24, were last seen at Fox Glacier on September 10, but the alarm over the missing pair was not raised until Monday when Lam failed to turn up to her first day at work at Nelson Hospital.
Police believed the couple had driven through the Diana Falls area of the highway, where there was a major slip that the night, but "in all likelihood" they were hit by another slip.
Search efforts would continue downstream of the presumed crash site and along the West Coast near the river mouth.
Given that a week had passed since they were thought to have crashed, police had been in contact with the coroner, Canning said.
"We will continue searching until we have recovered the bodies of the passengers [and] until we feel we have covered every area thoroughly. That may take quite some time."
He said their van, a Volkswagen hired in Nelson, was found "extensively damaged" in the riverbed, the chassis wrapped around a rock near the Gates of Haast bridge. Debris from the vehicle was also found.
A petrol tank was found washed ashore about 7 kilometres up the coast from the river mouth.
Police believed their plan was to travel south to Otago and up the east coast to Nelson.
Police 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 five to 10 minutes.
Later that night, a series of slips came down along the Haast Pass highway.
The waters in the gorge were running "very high", about 6 metres higher than today, Canning said.
After they crashed, the pieces of the vehicle had been swept downstream.
Canning said police were looking into an account from a Haast resident who reported following a campervan in the Haast Pass, but lost sight of it minutes before encountering a slip.
A resident said the woman and her daughter had told her they were attempting to get to Dunedin, leaving Haast about 6.20pm.
It took them about an hour to get to Pleasant Flats.
They continued on up the Haast Pass highway towards the summit.
They stopped briefly and could still see the van's tail lights.
However, when they set off again, they encountered a slip a short drive further on. Trees were blocking the road, so they were forced to turn back.
There was no sign of the van.
The road was closed about 8pm.
''They never saw it again. It had to be on the other side of the slip or the slip got it,'' the resident said.
It was confirmed today that Hayes' father, Michael, is flying to New Zealand to join the search for his son.
Speaking from her home in Smiths Falls, Ontario, Connor's aunt, Christina Hayes, said the family were anxiously awaiting news.
"He [Connor] is a great guy. He's very caring. He loves to be outdoors, which is [one of the reasons] why he was there [in New Zealand]."
Christina Hayes said the family was "incredibly worried" but "we're praying for a safe return".
Meanwhile, Jeffrey Lam is clinging to hope that his sister and her boyfriend are still alive despite van wreckage being found down a West Coast cliff.
"At this point, we kind of have to. We are obviously praying and hoping," the 27-year-old Canadian said today.
"They loved each other and they did everything together."
Did you see the couple or their van in the Haast Pass area? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
A police officer yesterday spotted pieces of their wrecked rental van 80 metres down a cliff in a gorge off State Highway 6, near the Gates of Haast bridge.
The rear wheels and chassis of the vehicle were recovered, but the body and engine are thought to have been swept downstream.
Last night, a fuel tank, believed to have come from their vehicle, was found washed up on the beach about 7km north of the mouth of the Haast River.
The river mouth is about 50km from the highway where the pair's vehicle is believed to have left the road.
Police have yet to determine whether Lam and Hayes were in the vehicle when it left the road.
A police officer at the Haast station said today that the van had been "totally demolished by the water".
The search team had found "heaps" of components from the van.
Next of kin have been contacted by police.
From his Ontario home, Lam spoke of his despair at not knowing what had happened to his sister and her boyfriend.
His parents were dealing with the situation "terribly".
It was too early to say if any of them would travel to New Zealand, he said.
"We don't have enough information. We are just hoping ... that something comes to fruition that gives us an answer to move forward."
Lam said his sister and Hayes arrived in New Zealand on September 2 after spending about a month in Peru.
The last contact she had with her family was by email on September 8.
Joanna Lam was meant to take up a placement as a medical imaging specialist at Nelson Hospital's radiology department on Monday.
Hayes was going to return to Canada after she had settled. He was training to be a police officer.
They had travelled through the North Island and were looking forward to heading to the South Island, he said.
Lam said the pair were "experienced travellers".
They had hiking gear, sleeping bags and other equipment to survive harsh conditions, he said.
"They loved each other and they did everything together. They encouraged each other, they challenged each other, they inspired each other."
He described his sister as a free spirit with a bubbly personality. She was once head girl at Kingston Collegiate Vocational Institute in Canada.
She had done volunteer work in Costa Rica, he said.
"She was trying to inspire those around her. The most captivating thing about my sister has to be her smile. She treated the world as her oyster."
He said Hayes was a humble man.
The couple met more than two years ago and lived together in Ottawa.
A friend of Joanna Lam, Tamara Sagadore, told international media that the six-month contract at Nelson Hospital had an option for an extended stay.
Lam had worked in the radiology department at Ottawa Hospital's Civic campus, the CBC News website reported.
Hayes was passionate about running and his family were from the Toronto area.
Lam grew up in Kingston, Ontario, where her family still lives.
A Twitter feed, #findjoandconnor, has been set up by people worried about the couple.
Nelson Marlborough District Health Board chief executive Chris Fleming said he was "very concerned" about Lam.
She had arranged her job before arriving in New Zealand, and police said she was considered to be a reliable and organised person.
A police crash investigator and photographer were at the Haast Pass site yesterday, and a helicopter crew had flown over the area in an attempt to find the missing pair.
Sergeant Russell Glue, of Hokitika, said 15 volunteers and police staff made their way up the Haast River on foot and in jet boats from first light today.
A helicopter would fly over the area again.
Glue suspected the wrecked parts were found "quite close" to the level the river would have been at when it was flooded last week.
- The Press
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