It was every parent's worst
nightmare; news their child has died while travelling on the
other side of the world, their rented campervan swept off the
road during a powerful storm.
Connor Hayes and Joanna
But for the last five months the families of Canadian couple
Connor Hayes, 25, and Joanna Lam, 24, have taken solace in
believing that the young couple didn't see it coming; that
death would have been swift, painless.
Yesterday, however, a different, altogether more troubling,
harrowing picture emerged.
A coronial inquest into the pair's death, heard how the
travellers had attempted to escape the treacherous Haast Pass
on the South Island's West Coast on that wild night of
September 10 last year.
Witnesses told the hearing in Greymouth of seeing the white
motorhome trapped behind the first of two landslides as the
wind lashed its windscreen, gale force winds buffeted its
high sides, and water and debris splashed across the tarmac.
And then 800 metres away, a second massive "avalanche" of
rock, mud, shingle and native trees smashed them off the road
and down a cliffside into the raging Haast River below where
the van disintegrated.
Connor's distraught parents Michael Hayes and wife Lorraine
Tetreault jetted from their Ottawa home to join the search.
Joanna's body washed up on a beach 55km from the wreckage 10
days later, but there has never been any trace of Connor.
During their unsuccessful week in Haast, Connor's parents
believed he had succumbed in a tragic accident that "probably
happened very quickly".
"As parents, we hoped they weren't frightened, they didn't
suffer, that bang, it was over," Mr Hayes, a 58-year-old
retired special education high school teacher told APNZ
"But the more we read and the more information that we've now
received ahead of the inquest, and weren't aware of while we
were in Haast, our worst fears may very well have been
"Connor and Joanna may very well have realised they were
trapped, they knew they were in a bad spot that night ...
From that point of view, it's been illuminating but very
troubling ... upsetting."
Yesterday's inquest was the first of two hearings. A later
hearing will look more deeply into the circumstances of what
Coroner David Crerar was "satisfied to quite a high degree"
that both tourists died near Diana Falls on September 10 last
year after their campervan was pushed down a cliff by a
landslide, sending them into the Haast River, and causing
them to die from "'high energy impact injuries" to the head,
chest, spine, and limbs.
"It's awful families have lost children in these
circumstances," the coroner noted.
Bernie and Kath Monk, whose son Michael died in the Pike
River mining tragedy, represented the Hayes family at the
inquest. The Lam family was not represented.
Mr Hayes now hopes for some clarity from Coroner Crerar's
"I'm still very muddled as to how Connor and Joanna actually
died," he said.
"I'm very much looking forward to getting the coroner's final
take on 'this is what we think happened'.
"I've read witness statements, and spoken with Robin Manera
the investigating [police] officer, and there's a lot of bits
and pieces that I think need to come together for us to get a
complete picture of what happened."
His son is yet to receive a proper funeral. The Roman
Catholic Church of Canada says a body is required.
"Personally, I lost Connor when I heard about his accident
and having a body to bring back wasn't going to change that,"
Mr Hayes said.
The family has held memorial services for him though, both at
Haast township's Okuru cemetery and in Ottawa. A priest
friend of Mr Hayes also conducted a mass for them in
It coincided with the death of Nelson Mandela, and mass was
offered for all three of them.
"Connor would have got a kick out of that one," Mr Hayes
He keeps in touch with the Lam family. Ms Lam's brother
Jeffrey told APNZ they don't want to speak until after the
coroner's findings are released.
Mr Hayes meanwhile is planning a return to New Zealand for
the second part of the inquest.
"For us there's a lot of what-ifs. Connor has five brothers
and sisters and they've all been very much affected with
losing a brother," he said.
"I've lost a real good friend in Connor - he was a lot of fun
to be around. And in Joanna, we've lost a beautiful girl who
was most likely going to be a daughter-in-law. It's been
"Lorraine and I are just so grateful for the support we've
received from people we met in Haast and mates in
Christchurch. It helps. It helps a lot. We're not there but
we've got a good sense that the people who are there are
keeping an eye out for us."
- By Kurt Bayer of