Rescuers thanked for efforts to help two in fatal Waikato River car plunge
Rescuers put their lives on the line to pull a woman and her partner from the Waikato River after their ute flew off the highway into the fast-flowing current.
Some made return trips, scrambling up and down an almost vertical 10-metre bank to reach the pair, whose Saturday trip to Taranaki took a treacherous and fatal turn.
Susan Donna Ramsay, 60, died in hospital two days after the river plunge in Cambridge that also hospitalised her moderately injured partner, who's in his mid-60s.
Police have commended the bystanders who helped, including an off-duty police officer from Napier and a passerby who was willing to dive into the river armed with an axe and a trailer tie-down strap to retrieve the pair.
"They risked their own lives to save two other people, although the woman died later," Cambridge police Sergeant Andrew Osborn said.
"The gentleman wouldn't have survived [without them] - the water was freezing and the river is turbulent."
Osborn said the Tauranga woman and her partner were heading to Taranaki around lunchtime on Saturday and were coming north along State Highway 1 into Cambridge in the man's Nissan Navara two-door flat deck ute, towing a trailer.
As the man approached the roundabout at the intersection of Shakespeare Street, for some unknown reason he veered left, going straight across the middle island, taking out a street sign before hitting the metal Armco barrier.
"We're still not 100 per cent sure how the driver has failed to negotiate the roundabout. That's still under investigation.
"We do know the roundabout was very busy and built up at the time."
The ute went airborne off the side of the highway, tumbling between two trees on the bank and plunging into the estimated 12-metre-deep turbulent water.
In the depths the trailer and ute came apart, ending up on either side of a tree and about 10 metres out from the bank.
Those first on the scene said the ute sank quickly.
Somehow below the surface, both Ramsay and her partner came free of the vehicle.
"We know the driver has exited the vehicle and a short time later the passenger has surfaced.
"He's then hung on to her in the water and that's when members of the public and an off-duty policeman have entered the water."
First on the scene was a man who scrambled down the bank after the ute and then back up to grab an axe and a trailer tie-down strap ready to break them free from the vehicle.
He was then joined by an off-duty police officer from Napier, who was walking nearby with his family.
By then the pair had surfaced, but the bank was too steep to pull the unconscious woman up, so bystanders wrapped the strap around her and floated her upstream about 20 metres to a landing in a shallow area.
There, volunteer paramedics, three volunteer firefighters and a doctor who stopped to help gave rotating CPR on the woman for an hour until she regained a pulse, Osborn said.
The woman was then pulled up the bank in a Stokes basket and taken to Waikato Hospital in a critical condition, where she died on Monday afternoon.
"Thanks to all those people who helped to rescue the couple - the members of the public, volunteer firefighters and paramedics."
On Thursday, as police divers spent hours working to retrieve the sunken ute and trailer, Ramsay's family - including sons, daughter and sister - made plans for her funeral.
They were too upset to speak, but wanted to thank all those who helped in the rescue on Saturday.
She was a loving sister, mother and partner, they said.
A team of police divers spent hours finding and then securing the vehicle and trailer and attaching airbags to refloat the ute that was then dragged by he harbourmaster's boat to the western edge of the river.
Mercury Energy shut down the dam at Karapiro to lower the river levels by 2 metres to allow the recovery.
The ute was pulled out onto a tow truck and taken away for further investigation.