Abbey Caves tragedy: 111 caller describes teacher’s efforts to save students

Police walk down steps towards the Abbey Caves, Whāngarei, after  searchers looking for a Whangārei Boys' High School student recovered a body.

Police at Abbey Caves.
Photo: RNZ / Tom Taylor

A man who was at Whāngarei’s Abbey Caves where a group of students got trapped earlier this week says the teacher in charge collapsed in tears when he realised one of them was missing.

The boy’s body was found late on Tuesday night, after the weather that struck the upper North Island that day had eased.

Arborist Caleb Salisbury told Morning Report today he was working near the caves when three students ran up to him crying and asking for help.

More students and their teacher came up the track as he was calling 111.

“They were just saying that the group of friends were trapped in the cave. The water had come up really fast and they needed help immediately.

“I phoned 111 straight away and explained the situation, and then started to try and get a head count of how many people there were – and there’s actually 17 students in total, and two adults.”

Salisbury said a student “came running down the hill and said ‘this boy is missing’.”

“Once we’d counted and realised that the boy was missing, the teacher collapsed straight away. He was just, he was beside himself.”

Salisbury said he ran down to the caves to see what could be done before emergency services arrived, and found a “torrent of muddy water”.

“It was flowing very, very high. It’s quite a climb to get down into the cave and the water was at the height of that climb. And you know, it was very deep, a lot of pressure against the face of the cave. There’s not much you can do in a flood situation like that.”

A security guard at the entrance to Abbey Caves, Northland, where a body was recovered during a search for a Year 11 student from Whangārei Boys' High School missing on a trip into the caves with a school party.

A security guard at the entrance to Abbey Caves, Northland, the day after the student’s body was recovered.
Photo: RNZ / Tom Taylor

A few minutes later the teacher arrived and explained how quickly the water had risen, and his efforts to rescue as many of the kids as he could.

“The story that I really want to get out is regardless of the fact that they were there and whose decision it was and all that, okay, that’s another issue. The fact is, that teacher put his life on the line in that moment and he saved at least another five kids that were gonna go into the same hole. And he was underwater pulling these kids out from under there.

“It’s a massive tragedy as it is, but this could have been way more serious if that teacher hadn’t put his life on the line.”

After he made similar comments to other media on Wednesday, Salisbury said people were “bagging” him online.

“A lot of people are saying, you know, that that’s rubbish. Well, yeah okay… I don’t know whose decision it was to go in there. I’m not gonna get into that argument, right? That’s an investigation that’s gonna happen, and they’ll find out the whole story of what went on.

“But in the emergency situation, that teacher did the best that he could. And I know this is gonna scar him for life – his reaction was, he was just absolutely mortified.”

WorkSafe has launched an investigation into the tragedy, expected to focus on why the caving trip went ahead despite heavy rain and thunderstorm warnings.

A Givealittle page set up to support the lost boy’s whānau had as of Thursday morning raised more than $54,000.

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