Kerikeri Basin looks innocuous but fresh water can be treacherous, as a number of people have discovered with almost fatal consequences. Photo / Peter de Graaf
A lifeguard on crutches, a visiting karate coach from Turkey and a Paihia man who came close to drowning are being lauded for preventing a tragedy at Kerikeri Basin.
The drama began about 3.30pm on
February 3 when two boys got into difficulty swimming near the Stone Store.
One managed to get back to shore but their mother went into the water to help the younger boy, along with three bystanders — at least one of whom also got into trouble when the boy panicked and dragged him under.
Duane Monk, of Waitangi, said he’d been showing a friend, Turkish karate instructor Okay Arpa, the sights of Kerikeri when Arpa noticed something amiss in the water.
Two people who seemed from a distance to be having fun were in fact struggling against the current of the rain-swollen river.
When one of them called for help Arpa jumped in, Monk said, while his 81-year-old father ran off to find a rowboat.
When Arpa got close he saw a mother and a young boy starting to panic. His arrival allowed the exhausted mother to swim back to shore.
Monk said his friend had “without a doubt” saved the woman because she would not have left her boy until help was at hand.
As Arpa was pushing the boy back to shore, however, the youngster wrapped himself around his would-be rescuer.
Unable to swim against the current with just one arm and one leg free, he broke loose and also called for help.
At that point Monk leapt in.
“Unfortunately my experience isn’t great. I’m fit but I haven’t been swimming in years. Jumping in maybe wasn’t that smart but it’s just what you do if you see someone in trouble.”
The panicking boy grabbed hold of Monk and pushed his head under, so he also had to break free.
“I held him up for a bit but it went through my head we’d both be gone. The feeling of not being able to bring him in was horrific,” Monk said.
It was then that Belinda Gummer, from Houhora, heard the commotion.
A member of the Kaitaia College paddleboarding team, she’d been to Whangārei earlier that day and decided to join the Thursday afternoon paddleboarding group at Kerikeri Basin on her way home.
She arrived early so decided to pass the time reading.
“I was sitting on a bench outside the Stone Store when someone came running past so I asked what was wrong. He said ‘there’s people drowning’ and carried on.”
Gummer, a trained pool lifeguard and surf rescuer, was on crutches so probably didn’t look like she’d be much help. However, she made her way to the water, spotted two people in difficulty, ditched her crutches and jumped in.
“When I got there a man was on his back, floating-ish. There was a boy about 8 years old also on his back. I could see the boy’s mouth bobbing up and down under the water so I asked the man if he was okay to keep floating on his back and went out to the boy. I told him I was going to grab his head, I dragged him in and got him up on the bank.”
At the same time Gummer kept an eye on the man, who by then had made it into an eddy that was pulling him back to shore.
“He was well knackered. He told me he got to the kid but had to push him away because he was being pulled under and they were both going to drown. He was absolutely exhausted. I was really worried for him.”
Monk said he was “ecstatic” when Gummer was able to help. He had swallowed water and vomited repeatedly once back on land. He was taken to hospital for a check-up.
An emergency service worker called to the scene, who did not want to be identified, said members of the public who jumped into the water had “saved some lives” that day.
“I’m just in awe of their selflessness and bravery.”
The incident also showed the advantage of having water rescue training, he said.
Gummer, however, said it was just a case of “being in the right place at the right time”.
She was in awe of Monk for trying to rescue the boy despite describing himself as “a runner, not a swimmer”, while Monk credited Arpa with saving the mother and realising something was wrong in the first place.
Gummer insisted everyone involved got their lungs checked because people who had inhaled water were at risk of developing pneumonia or a “scary” complication called secondary drowning.
Her advice to anyone attempting a rescue, if they weren’t a strong swimmer, was to not approach the person immediately.
“The first thing anyone’s going to do who’s drowning is jump on you. Always stop before you get to the person, get them calm and floating on their back, and get behind them. Make sure you keep yourself safe,” she said.
“And if you’re in trouble yourself, float on your back. If you’re on your back, you can yell, you can breathe.”
Sometimes swimmers forgot the extra danger posed by fresh water, which offered much less buoyancy than salt water so it was harder to stay afloat.
That day Kerikeri River was still running high after heavy rain, which created other risks.
“You don’t want to be swimming in any swollen river. You don’t know what’s under the water. There could be dislodged trees or anything.”