Woman, boy recovering after massive rescue from Port Waikato coast

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Rescuers performed CPR on a woman multiple times as she was airlifted to Auckland Hospital after she and a boy were plucked from ice-cold waters off the Port Waikato coastline.

The rescue was big - due to all of the agencies involved - and a success for the crews who now only hope the woman, aged in her 30s, and a 7-year-old, can pull through.

Despite both being severely hypothermic, they were slowly recovering, with the woman now in a serious condition in Auckland Hospital and the boy stable in Starship Hospital.

The pair were with a man in their boat which stalled then flipped while negotiating the bar crossing at Port Waikato about 5.30pm on Saturday, tossing them into the freezing water.

Emergency crew - ranging from lifeguards, to police, rescue chopper staff, Coastguard and St John - descended on the scene.

Kariaotahi Surf Lifesaving Club president Mike Lawrence said about 12 of his team turned up on the ground, while the Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter searched for the trio from the air.

However, it wasn't until the police eagle helicopter arrived - with infrared heat-detection equipment on board - about 15 minutes later that the trio were spotted huddling together in the water, wearing lifejackets, about 600m to 700m offshore.

'Difficult conditions'

Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter intensive care paramedic Casey Drum said conditions were difficult; it was a dark night with no moon to help in their search.

"Eagle found them ... fairly quickly once they got there but then the next challenge was for us to try and get them."

Drum was winched down, with an inflatable rescue tube, from the chopper but as it was so dark it was hard for the pilot to get any point of reference to keep the chopper steady.

"If you have to hover a helicopter above someone when there's people in the water they need something to look at to keep it still. That was the challenge."

As the chopper hovered about 13m above the water, Drum got to within 5m of the trio, who were waving out to him.

However, sea spray was now causing further visibility issues for the crew, so that plan was aborted.

It was about then, Drum said, the lifesaving crew came up with the idea of heading out in an IRB using the rescue chopper's night light to guide their path.

Police and surf club vehicles parked up on the beach with their headlights on to give added visibility, as the surf club crew headed out.

Arriving out there, they noticed the force of the rotor wash from the chopper was intense, as it flicked spray up on them.

"If you're ever under a helicopter with a rotor wash you can feel it and see it, it's like when you see a big dust cloud coming across the street to you."

It didn't affect the speed of the recovery, however, and they completed the rescue in four minutes.

"It was straight out under the spotlight, grab the three people at once and straight back in. It was fantastic. We were also mindful that the helicopter had been in the area for some time."

'Onshore but not out of the woods yet'

The woman and child both needed immediate treatment; the woman went into cardiac arrest just as she was being loaded into the chopper.

"The third patient was walking and talking, albeit a bit wobbly, and the police transported him back up to the surf club, where there were a couple of ambulances waiting."

Lawrence said the man was shaken, cold but able to confirm they were the only occupants and were returning back into the bar when they got into trouble.

He was unsure of the relationship between the trio.

Drum said after landing on the beach, they quickly triaged the woman and boy and realised they were in a dire state.

"Two of them were responsive but critically unwell at that point. We hustled them into the helicopter.

"They were very hypothermic, freezing cold. You get into quite a delicate physiological state when you get into the temperatures that those people were.

"Certainly the child and the lady."

But they weren't in the clear. The chopper crew then had to get them to hospital as quickly as possible with the woman going into cardiac arrest just as she was being loaded in.

"She was resuscitated one time in the helicopter. We performed CPR for about three minutes and resuscitated her and then she cardiac arrested again in flight and we performed resuscitation all the way to the emergency department."

As for the boy, he was also in the chopper "critically hypothermic".

"He also had some symptoms of non-fatal drowning, so [breathed in some water] but he was breathing spontaneously."

The pair were so cold they were not emanating any heat and needed to be "aggressively warmed" once at hospital. However, in the interim, they were stripped of their wet clothing and heat pads and blankets used to help do the job.

"They were some of the coldest characters that we've seen for a very long time."

'One of the most challenging jobs of my career'

In terms of the rescue operation, Drum said it was "brilliant" but one of "the most challenging" jobs of his career to date.

"It was pretty testing conditions for [surf club crew] but they did a fantastic job in a real slick rescue to pull them all into the boat and get back to shore really timely actually. Just in time.

"It was outstanding."

He also praised police for being able to find the trio so quickly and marine rescue for the coordination of the event.

As for the trio in the water, Lawrence praised them for not only all wearing lifejackets but for being able to stay together.

Afterwards, Lawrence said they had their regular debrief, which went over operational aspects but also the emotional toll on his crew. They then recalled what they were doing just prior to getting called out.

Lawrence said he was at a function with his wife, a lifeguard had just arranged a tinder date, while another was walking to the pub for a beer.

But he was proud of his team for dropping everything to rush and help those in need.

"It was a fantastic effort," he said.