Rescuers find hero's body at Maruia Falls

SEARCHING: The police national dive team at Maruia Falls.
SEARCHING: The police national dive team at Maruia Falls.

The body of a Christchurch man has been recovered after he drowned jumping off Maruia Falls in a bid to save his friend who had been sucked over the 11-metre waterfall.

Police national dive squad arrived at the waterfall, off State Highway 65 south of Murchison, about midday today and began searching for the missing man. The body was recovered this afternoon.

The Nelson police area commander, Inspector Steve Greally, said three Canterbury friends, two 55-year-old Christchurch men and a 48-year-old Kaiapoi man, stopped at the falls yesterday on their way from Christchurch to Nelson.

HUNT: The Nelson Marlborough Rescue helicopter helped in the search at Maruia Falls.
HUNT: The Nelson Marlborough Rescue helicopter helped in the search at Maruia Falls.

One of the 55-year-olds wanted to paddle in the pools above the falls, which his friends tried to persuade him against but he jumped over the barrier fence regardless and ended up getting sucked down a chute about 6pm yesterday.

''One of his mates jumped off to try to rescue his mate and the other guy went for help,'' Greally said.

''People need to understand for five seconds of fun and poor decision-making, it can take your life.'' 

SOUTH OF MURCHISON: Maruia Falls location
SOUTH OF MURCHISON: Maruia Falls location

Some travellers in the parking area below the falls rushed to try to help the third man in rescue efforts.

However, the water below the falls circulated in two huge whirlpools on either side which stopped the men from breaking out.

''They could see both of them going around and around and fighting against the current.''

One of the persons present had a fabric strop which was too short to reach the men but others ran to a nearby house to alert emergency services and got another which they fixed together and tied to a stick.

They then clambered out on a rock ledge below the falls to throw across the water to the men but it also was too short.

One of the men eventually managed to grab it and was dragged to safety but the other man, who had jumped in to save his friend, was last seen face-down in the water before disappearing.

''We feel for the family and the man who was doing something heroic, albeit extremely dangerous,'' Greally said.

''When you see a friend in mortal danger, the natural inclination is to jump in.'' 

Constable Willy Squires, of Murchison police, was the first emergency service to arrive at the scene last night and praised the actions of those who plucked the survivor from the "vicious current".

''They've done well to retrieve one guy, which was borderline irretrievable.''

The two men's companion led rescue efforts which stopped others jumping into the water because of the danger.

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Murchison Land Search and Rescue, Tasman white water rescue team's Murchison branch, two local volunteer fire brigades and two local ambulances joined rescue efforts last night, along with Nelson Marlborough rescue helicopter.

Squires said the helicopter flew around the bottom of the falls last night and used its downdraft to move debris in an unsuccessful effort to locate the missing man, before airlifting the survivor to Nelson Hospital.

The third man drove to Nelson last night to be with his injured friend.

SH 65 was closed for a short time last night while rescue efforts were underway.

He said there had been multiple deaths at the falls over the years but people continued to ignore safety barriers to climb onto rocks above them.

''Unless you've got proper equipment and you know what you're doing, it's never going to end well playing around the top of a waterfall.''

Police national dive squad officer in charge, Senior Sergeant Bruce Adams, said it was his fifth missing person search he had attended at Maruia Falls in 23 years.

Such searches were physically demanding with many hazards but the squad was focused on finding the man, he said.

''The guys are motivated to recover him for the family.''

Murchison-based New Zealand Kayak School director Mick Hopkinson, team leader for the local white water rescue team, was at the scene last night with four team members and some returned today to assist with search efforts.

He said the rescued man looked ''very shocked'' last night as he sat on rocks near the falls, as was the third man in their party as time wore on.

''I think they gradually realised there wasn't going to be a rescue.''

It was the second time in three days that tourists had fallen down the falls.

On Wednesday, a Belgian tourist was sucked down a similar chute after standing on the rocks above the falls to take photographs.

Three Australian kayakers were at the scene to rescue him and he had since been discharged from Nelson Hospital, Squires said.

Hopkinson said local white water rescue team members re-visited the area on Friday and miraculously managed to retrieve the man's bag, including his wallet, and camera from underneath the falls.

Concerns have been raised about the lack of warning signs about the dangers that exist in the area.
Earlier today, Department of Conservation (DOC) ranger Phil Crawford said signs were installed in a car parking area after the death of a man who plunged over the falls in 2011.

However, staff discovered the signs had disappeared after Wednesday's incident. They had likely been stolen and would be reinstated as soon possible, Crawford said.


The Press