West Coast bridges blasted after fatal river crash

Andrew Field, 17, pulled three children out of a wrecked car after a crash that killed their father, Tamati Rae, on the ...
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Andrew Field, 17, pulled three children out of a wrecked car after a crash that killed their father, Tamati Rae, on the West Coast on Sunday.

Barriers on single-lane wooden bridges are "death traps" suitable for staircases, not high speed collisions, a West Coast shuttle driver says.

Lobbyist Cedric Trounson said drivers should not be punished with the "death penalty" for failing to navigate a bridge, and blaming motorists was a "cop-out".

He said it was "gut-wrenching" to hear of another fatal crash after 32-year-old Tamati James Rae crashed through the wooden railings and off the bridge on Atarau Rd, north of the Pike River Mine turn-off on Sunday, between Greymouth and Reefton. 

Kaikoura man Tamati Rae, 32, died after crashing off a bridge over the Otututu River north of Greymouth.
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Kaikoura man Tamati Rae, 32, died after crashing off a bridge over the Otututu River north of Greymouth.

Diesel mechanic apprentice Andrew Field sloshed through a freezing West Coast river in the dark to pull three young boys from the upside-down car after the crash that killed their father.

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The 17-year-old was driving home to Greymouth about 8.20pm on Sunday when he saw the car half-submerged in the Otututu River, NZME reported. 

West Coast farm worker Ryan Davy, who helped after coming across a car crash on the bridge next to the farm he works on ...
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West Coast farm worker Ryan Davy, who helped after coming across a car crash on the bridge next to the farm he works on near Ikamatua.

The crash added to simmering tension about fragile West Coast bridges after a spate of fatal crashes in recent years, including one where the bodies of two tourists were recovered from the river two days after their car plunged over the side of the Wanganui River bridge in 2015.

Five single-lane bridges south of Hokitika, four on State Highway 73, and the one where Rae fatally crashed on Sunday needed "urgent attention", Trounson said.

"They're suitable for a handrail, but not to withstand speed. Most of these bridges were built in the 30s when that wasn't so much of a problem, but it is now.

Tamati Rae crashed through the wooden railings and off the bridge on Atarau Rd, between Greymouth and Reefton, on Sunday.
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Tamati Rae crashed through the wooden railings and off the bridge on Atarau Rd, between Greymouth and Reefton, on Sunday.

"I've never seen a car go into the river off a bridge with steel sides, but I've seen half a dozen go through the rails and straight into the riverbed. I'm talking right in there, fully submerged."

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Trounson appealed to the Grey District Council, which is responsible for the maintenance of Atarau Rd, for urgent action to improve safety for motorists. 

"I'm not asking for all bridges to be replaced because there just isn't the funds, but what we have should be made safe."

The issue was particularly problematic on the tourist route through the coast, along State Highway 6, he said. 

"Most of them are used to driving on the other side, they come to a bridge and they misjudge it. They shouldn't die for that, and if bridges had steel sides, they would still be alive today.

"If politicians want to save lives, how about doing something about our bridges?"

In June, snow groomer Tom Campbell was killed when he crashed off the Maimai Creek bridge on the Haast Highway (SH6) – the third crash on the bridge in about 15 months.

West Coast-Tasman MP Damien O'Connor​ said single-lane bridges desperately needed addressing, especially as they often came as a shock to tourists and those unfamiliar with the area.

"People don't expect them at all, they come from a highway and there is no chance to register them, often to their complete and tragic surprise.

"I have been lobbying ministers to get single-lane bridges gone . . . but I've hit a brick wall."

The Labour Party has committed to doubling the amount of money available for regional roading and on bridges and other areas where "road safety is being compromised", he said.

After Sunday's crash, Field called police and drove his ute down into the riverbed and through the water to the car, near the far side of the river. He saw the driver was trapped and appeared to be "already gone".

Field told NZME he climbed out of the vehicle into water, which was up to his waist and "f...... freezing".

"I heard a voice saying 'help us'. I grabbed a rock and smashed a side window."

NZME reported he then helped the three boys – aged 11, 9 and 6 – out of the smashed-up car, onto the bank and into the ute, then drove them out.

Farm worker Ryan Davy, 27, arrived minutes later and said Field had "saved the lives" of the three children, Mathew, Benji and Hunter. Rae's daughter, Amelia, was not involved in the crash.

Davy said he thought he saw some lights in one of the farm paddocks so went to see what was happening.

"I got to the bridge and a car had crashed into the river and was upside down," he said.

"There was young fella there. He had already pulled the kids out and saved their lives.

"He's the one who needs to get a lot of gratitude about what he did."

Field told NZME people told him he should feel like a hero, "but it's hard to feel like that when you know the boys are going to grow up with no father".

He said the children could have drowned if rain had fallen in the river's headwaters after the crash, or they could have been swept away if they managed to escape.

The children stayed with Davy and had a bath before they were taken to Greymouth Hospital. He used a tractor to move the car onto the riverbank.

Father-of-four Rae was returning home to Kaikoura after visiting family on the West Coast when he crashed Atarau Rd, and landed in the water.

Senior Sergeant Brent Cook said the children suffered minor scrapes and bruises.

Emergency services later found Rae's body. Cook called the incident "extremely traumatic".

Friends of Rae have set up a Givealittle page to help support his family.

 - Stuff

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