This van which carried a family group of 10 lies in the
Mataura River after crashing off Nokomai Rd, near Athol, on
Tuesday afternoon. Photo by Invercargill Police.
A rural fire chief was already rescuing injured tourists
from a fatal crash in the Mataura River when his pager alerted
him to the incident on Tuesday.
Robert Durling, chief fire officer of Athol Volunteer Rural
Fire Force, was in the right place at the right time when he
was one of the first on the scene. The fire chief, along with
his medic colleague and three Australian fishermen, braved
the cold, chest-deep water to rescue the ''extremely lucky''
survivors from their crashed van.
Mr Durling yesterday praised volunteer emergency services and
said he was keen to thank the ''Johnny on the spot''
''They were invaluable to us.''
Mr Durling said he and a Southern rural fire medic happened
to be treating an injured shearer at the end of Nokomai Rd,
near Athol, on Tuesday. The firefighters were told soon after
1pm there could be an incident at one of the bridges towards
the start of the unsealed road and drove to investigate.
''We came down towards the first bridge and were waved down
by a fisherman and alerted to the incident,'' Mr Durling
Just as the two firefighters pulled up, one fisherman was
calling 111 and Mr Durling's pager activated.
The three anglers were in the area when they heard the crash
and rushed to find out what was happening.
A family group of 10 people, ranging in age from 12 to 68 and
travelling on Canadian and Chinese passports, were in the van
when it crashed off the road and ended up in the water on its
The firefighters saw two of the tourists standing at one end
of the bridge and others climbing up the river bank.
Mr Durling entered the river to reach the van where the
fishermen were helping the occupants but it was too late for
the driver, a 59-year-old man from Toronto, Canada, and he
died at the scene. Police are yet to release the name of the
man as they are still working to notify his next of kin
The survivors ''were in severe shock after the traumatic
incident - they were walking wounded'', Mr Durling said.
''We did what we could until St John's turned up.''
The chief fire officer worked with four other firefighters
and two appliances from Athol, in addition to firefighters
from Garston and fire service units from Lumsden and
Mossburn. Three ambulances and three helicopters were used to
transfer seven patients to Invercargill Hospital and two to
The 52-year-old wife of the driver was expected to be
released from Southland Hospital yesterday. She suffered neck
injuries in the crash, police said.
The couple's two children, aged 12 and 14, were discharged
from Southland Hospital on Tuesday evening. The two women,
aged 68 and 55, who were admitted to Dunedin Hospital on
Tuesday were also expected to be discharged from hospital
yesterday. The remaining passengers received medical
treatment, but were not admitted to hospital.
Mr Durling praised the emergency services personnel which
responded, saying 90% of them were volunteers.
''Hopefully, New Zealanders don't forget that most of these
guys ... doing this aren't paid.''
While the river was not flowing too fast, following dry
weather, the van landed in the deeper side of the waterway,
''so the passengers were extremely lucky - things could have
got a lot worse,'' he said.
Overseas drivers should ''be wary of any back country roads
which may be different from where they're from. Even locals
exhibit extreme caution on these roads''.
A serious crash investigator finished examining the scene
''Initial indications are that the van has clipped the edge
of a bridge and then crashed over the roadside into the
river,'' Senior Sergeant Cynthia Fairley, of Winton, said