'He just wasn't there'
Friends and classmates of a missing swimmer embraced each other for support as police informed the group they had located a body at Omanawa Falls.
While a formal identification is still pending, the discovery confirmed the news the group of Waikato University students had been dreading to hear.
Support is now being offered to fellow students, at least two of whom were with the man swimming at the picturesque waterfall south of Tauranga on Sunday.
He’s understood to be an international student.
The friends who were swimming with the man, along with other students, were at the scene much of Monday. Police informed them at the scene after the body was found.
The man failed to surface about 3pm on Sunday after spending time swimming and taking photos with friends at the waterfall.
On Monday, the Police National Dive Squad arrived at the scene, a 30-minute drive south from Tauranga.
The person who called the emergency services asked not to be named but says she’d just left the falls in mid-afternoon when she heard someone running up the access path calling for help.
"The woman was German and didn’t know the emergency number.
"She said a swimmer had not come back up and I knew who she was talking about - we had just been with that group earlier. They’d helped us find a way down to the falls."
After calling 111, she ran back down to see what she could do.
But a friend of the missing man said there was no point.
"I wish I was around. Maybe I could have seen him or kept an eye out."
Friends of the victim were told at the scene that a body had been found. Photos: Matt Shand.
Friend shivering and distressed
One of the girls with the man was so cold and shocked by what she’d witnessed, she was unable to move unaided from a rock at the base of the waterfall.
"She was very distressed having seen the other guy go under and not come up again," Whitianga-based Westpac Rescue pilot James Tayler said on Monday.
"The water was pretty cold and as there was no sun on it, it never warmed up."
The helicopter crew got the call to help in the rescue around 3pm on Sunday.
A half-hour flight later, they arrived to find emergency services already there, assessing how to reach the two men and a woman at the bottom of the falls.
By then, the man had been missing for more than an hour.
"We then flew into the narrow, steep gorge about 70 metres deep. We had to carefully position the helicopter to get it into the gorge close to the waterfall."
But the rock the three were on was too close to the cliff face for the helicopter to hover above and winch them out.
Instead, intensive care paramedic Casey Drum was lowered into the pool. He swam to the three.
"After he assessed them, the two males were happy to walk out, meeting other emergency services, who helped them out.
"The female wasn’t able to get out from where she was."
He said the group in their early 20s were wearing shorts and T-shirts. By then, daylight was quickly fading.
"We winched her and the paramedic out and flew her to the top of the gorge, leaving her with the ambulance.
"Although she couldn’t walk out, she wasn’t in a bad enough state she needed a ride to hospital."
After refuelling at Tauranga Hospital, the helicopter returned at dusk to search the gorge for any sign of the missing man.
"After about half an hour, we didn’t find anything and it was getting too dark to be safe."
Tauranga City Council spokesman Warren Aitken said a gate blocking access to Omanawa Falls had been cut at some point
Aitken said keeping people out of the falls is an ongoing challenge, as social media promotes the location as being picturesque with no mention of the risks.
The only way to access the location is to climb over fences. Some people climb down sheer cliff faces using roots as handholds.
"The message to the public is to stay away," he said.
Police have not yet confirmed there has been a fatality, but if it is confirmed, it will be the first death at the location.
Aitken said there have been three emergency callouts to the falls this year alone.