Would-be rescuer 'tried in vain'

SOMBRE SCENE: Athol volunteer rural fire force chief fire officer Robert Durling at the scene of the  fatal crash at the Nokomai bridge.
SOMBRE SCENE: Athol volunteer rural fire force chief fire officer Robert Durling at the scene of the fatal crash at the Nokomai bridge.

An Australian fisherman who helped rescue nine tourists trapped in a van in the Mataura River "tried in vain" to save the driver who died at the scene.

The 59-year-old man was of Chinese descent but a Canadian national, police say.

Police would not release his name as they were still trying to notify next of kin overseas.

Van crash Southland
Van crash Southland

His 52-year-old Canadian wife and their two daughters, aged 12 and 14, were part of an extended family group of 10 travelling to Milford Sound for a day trip on Tuesday.

They had taken a detour on Nokomai Rd to take photographs but 4km along the gravel road, the van hit the one-lane Nokomai bridge and plunged into the river.

The tourists were travelling on Canadian and Chinese passports.

The driver's wife suffered neck injuries and his daughters were released from hospital yesterday.

Two women, aged 68 and 55, who were admitted to Dunedin Public Hospital were expected to be discharged last night.

The remaining passengers received medical treatment but were not admitted to hospital.

A group of fishermen went to the aid of the group.

Two of the three fishermen who jumped to the aid of the tourists were Australian and in Southland on a Goulburn Valley Fly Fishing Centre fishing trip.

The centre, which is a specialist Australian fly fishing store that also offers tuition and guided trips, runs tours in Southland for three months each year.

Centre guide Antony Boliancu said one of the fishermen was a guide working for the company.

"He tried in vain to free the [trapped] driver".

He was coping well, given what he went through, Boliancu said.

It is understood the fisherman had been coming to Southland to fish for 18 years.

Athol Volunteer Rural Fire Force chief fire officer Robert Durling, who jumped into the river to help the fishermen, is keen to track them down before they leave.

He wanted to say "thank you" in person because he had been unable to do so at the hectic crash site.

All the firefighters at the crash were volunteers, he said

Durling and his wife Kylie, who run a 607ha (1500-acre) farm, are both in the Athol volunteer force.

"This [the crash] is one of those situations where we are reliant on volunteers and we need as many as we can get to deal with these incidents.

Durling is also training with St John.

"There is a need for medical training in rural areas and we are desperate for volunteers for when we come across these sorts of things," she said.

Initial police investigations show the van clipped the edge of a bridge and then crashed into the river.

Senior Sergeant Maggie Windle, of Invercargill, said police were liaising with the family, and the Canadian and Chinese embassies had been assisting police.

A serious crash investigator completed work at the scene on Tuesday night.

Southland District Council staff examining the bridge yesterday said they believed speed was likely to be a factor in the crash.

Engineer Bruce Miller and strategic transport manager Joe Bourque were at the crash scene yesterday.

They believed the van was speeding before it plunged into the Mataura River.

Many overseas drivers did not understand how to drive to the conditions on unsealed roads, Bourque said. "It's a worry and council are concerned," he said.

He could not understand why it happened because the bridge was in good condition and there had been good weather.

Miller said it was unusual the van did not hit the first posts on the bridge. The wheel appeared to have clipped the concrete edge of the bridge and gone over in the middle of the bridge.

"They must have been speeding for it to bounce over the fence railing like that," Miller said.

The Southland Times