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Paritutu tragedy: Family thanks supporters

STACEY KIRK AND RYAN EVANS
Last updated 16:32 10/08/2012
DAILY NEWS ONLINE

A candle light vigil was held at the base of Paritutu where friends, family and the people of Taranaki gathered for the three people still missing.

New Plymouth woman Rebecca Hartley-Smith
ROBERT CHARLES/Fairfax NZ
MEMORY RECALL: New Plymouth woman Rebecca Hartley-Smith was rescued by a Topec instructor 14 years ago when she fell in the water during a Paritutu rock climbing exercise.

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The families of three people missing at sea after falling off New Plymouth's Paritutu Rock on Wednesday say they are being helped greatly by the huge amount of support from the community.

Spotswood College pupils Stephen Lewis Kahukaka-Gedye, 17, of New Plymouth, Joao Felipe Martins De Melo, known as Felipe Melo, 17, of Brazil, and Taranaki Outdoor Pursuits and Education Centre instructor Bryce John Jourdain, 42, of New Plymouth are all presumed drowned after falling off Paritutu rock.

Bruce Gedye, father of Stephen Kahukaka-Gedye, said their family was overwhelmed by the support they had received.

"On behalf of our family, we would like to thank all of those involved in the search for Stephen, Felipe and Bryce.

"We are hearing stories of people who are using their own boats and canoes to search. So many people are asking how they can help, including people we  don't even know. Your kindness is hugely appreciated."

Geyde said the entire family had rallied to provide "love, support and generosity" since Kahukaka-Geyde went missing.

"We appreciate everyone who turned out to last night's vigil at Paritutu Rock. Your thoughts and words spoken there last night are appreciated."

Jourdain 's wife, Robyn Jourdain, has also thanked those searching.

''Firstly, we would like to thank everybody for the huge amount of support, love and care we are being shown at this time.

We know they [the searchers] are doing their job to the highest standard, exactly like Bryce would have done in his work.

"Our thoughts and love are with Felipe and Stephen's families at this terrible time too," she said.

A helicopter has been funded privately by Shell Todd to carry on the search but Police have scaled back their operation and finished a shoreline search this afternoon.

"An aerial and marine search has also been underway today and Alpine Cliff Rescue volunteers have conducted a thorough search around the base of Paritutu Rock, however, sadly, the bodies of the three missing have not yet been recovered," Inspector Frank Grant said

Shoreline searches will be carried out throughout the course of the weekend, as will aerial searches, in a continuing effort to locate their bodies.

HOPE LINGERS

The father of Brazilian Melo was clinging to hope his son was safe and well.

Celio Melo said Felipe was a brave boy, physically fit and a good swimmer, which was why he still held such high hopes and wanted the search to continue. He begged New Zealand authorities not to stop looking.

Speaking from from his Fortaleza home, said he had been receiving regular updates from officials.

Celio said he hoped the police dive squad would be able to enter the water today.

It was a tough time for the family having things unfold from so far away. He and his wife were at home with their other son and their daughter was flying back from Europe to be with them.

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His brother and brother-in-law were arriving in New Zealand today.

Celio said it was comforting to know that Prime Minister John Key was looking into the situation.

He believed the authorities were doing the best job they could and did not want to be drawn into commenting on whether it was wise for the group to be out climbing that day. He only wanted to focus on the rescue operation.

FALL FROM ROCK NOT THE FIRST

A tragic rock-climbing expedition is not the first time that a rock-climbing outing on Paritutu rock has gone wrong.

The incident is similar to one 14 years ago when a rogue wave washed Rebecca Hartley-Smith, of New Plymouth, off the rock face during another Topec school camp. An instructor dived in and rescued her.

Hartley-Smith's mother, Nikki Burwell, said she was distressed when she heard about the tragedy as the memories of her daughter's ordeal resurfaced.

Burwell said she thought she had taken steps 14 years ago to prevent something like this happening again.

"At the time it was hard to find a line between making Topec aware of the risks for the students and not ruining the experience for hundreds and thousands of other Taranaki kids," she said.

Hartley-Smith said she was climbing around the base of Paritutu rock with a group of classmates and an instructor when a rogue wave knocked her off the path.

"I slid down the rocks to start with and then fell backwards into the water," she said.

"Because I had a lot of equipment on for when we got around to the rope, I was sinking quite a bit but at one point when I surfaced, I saw the instructor diving in and knew he was coming to get me."

She said the Topec staff did everything they could to help her in what was a traumatic and scary experience.

Conditions at the time were calm and it was a warm, sunny day. "I don't think it was low tide but it wasn't rough, I just got caught out by a completely rogue wave."

Burwell said she had a meeting with Topec staff after the incident because she was concerned about the safety precautions.

"I talked to them about their procedures and what precautions were taken and we discussed times and tides quite a bit.

"They said they would write a report noting my concerns and pass it on to the governing body."

At the time she thought that was enough to ensure nothing like it happened again.

"I'm not pointing the finger because at the time Topec handled Rebecca's situation really well and they do a lot for so many people in the community," she said.

"I just want people to be aware this has happened before and make sure there's an awareness and things perhaps change."

TOPEC PASSED SAFETY CHECKS

Topec board chairman David Grigg issued a statement saying it was conducting an internal investigation into what went wrong as staff reel from the loss of Jourdain, and the two students in their care.

By yesterday afternoon, much of the Topec website had been shut down, including the Paritutu Traverse climbing safety risk assessment.

Last month Topec was audited by Outdoors New Zealand and passed all safety checks.

Grigg said Topec was co-operating fully with all of the relevant authorities.

Garth Dawson, chief executive of Outdoors New Zealand, said all of the safety management systems and operating procedures had passed the July audit.

"Given the type of exercise of the Paritutu Traverse, it would have been fully investigated in terms of safety and everything passed the audit," he said.

Dawson said safety was the No 1 priority for outdoor pursuits instructors and Topec had no record of any previous serious incidents.

"Topec is a well-respected organisation not just in our own sector but in the educational and safety sectors as well," he said.

- Taranaki Daily News

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