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Dion Latta's rescuers were among those "shattered" to learn the popular teenager they described as a "fighter" died in hospital yesterday after his dramatic rescue from a waterfall in the Motatapu Gorge, near Wanaka, on Sunday night.
Wanaka police said the Nenthorn Valley youth fought hard for his life after being trapped upside down by his leg under the waterfall for at least three hours on New Year's Day.
However, despite the efforts of more than 15 search and rescue squad members, the John McGlashan College pupil died in Dunedin Hospital yesterday morning.
Tributes flowed yesterday for the 15-year-old who, according to friends and his principal, would be remembered as a popular, friendly boy who was good at sport, particularly athletics and rugby, and would be sorely missed.
John McGlashan College principal Mike Corkery said Dion, who was from a farming family in Nenthorn Valley near Palmerston and boarded at the school hostel, was a "great kid", a good sportsman and "just a delight to know".
His death was a tragedy.
"He was well known and well liked and part of the McGlashan family. The whole lot of us will just be mourning him."
Dion's parents, Logan and Sue Latta, were not able to be reached yesterday, but sympathies for the family flowed on Facebook, where an R.I.P Dion Latta page was set up early yesterday.
"I know it should have, but it still hasn't hit me that your [sic] gone," one girl wrote.
Other posts urged Dion to rest easy, said he would not be forgotten and spoke of how much he would be missed.
Otago Children's Athletics Committee chairman Bryce Watt said Dion was a "good wee rugby player", who played club and age group representative rugby and was also a "promising" runner.
Senior Constable Mike Johnston said Dion had been in the gorge with a group of friends when he became trapped by his foot, upside down in a waterfall, about 6.20pm.
Snr Const Johnston described a rescue effort that drew on all the resources available and said amputation was considered at one time. He described Dion as "a fighter, a strong kid", and said he had expressed the police's and the search and rescue crews' deepest sympathy to the Latta family.
"We did throw everything at it."
The rescue was co-ordinated by Wanaka LandSar volunteer Brent Arthur, who, with Snr Const Johnston, was first to respond to a call for help made by Dion's friends, who had hiked out of the gorge to raise the alarm.
Snr Const Johnston swam up the gorge in a wetsuit to assess the situation and held Dion's hand through the whole rescue, talking to him and trying to keep his spirits up.
Meanwhile, Mr Arthur stayed at the top of the gorge beside the Motatapu Bridge, co-ordinating the arrival of helicopters bringing climbers, canyoners, paramedics and gear into the valley.
Snr Const Johnston, who has also been a Wanaka LandSAR volunteer for nine years, said he was "shattered" after learning of Dion's death, but believed the rescue teams could not have done anything more.
"I most likely pushed the boundaries of things that I tried to do," he said.
"I was called about 6.30pm and Brent and I went as a hasty first-response team to get information. The scene was like nothing I could envisage.
"He was upside down with water going over him with a very nasty big impingement [of his trapped leg] on top of that.
"His free leg was sticking out the top of the waterfall. His friends had been able to get a piece of webbing that would usually be used to tie something down on a trailer.
"They were just holding him with that. The way the water was flowing created a big pillow, a big air cavity. He could hear us yelling.
"He could put his hand out of the waterfall. He could hear us but we couldn't hear him. It was very noisy because of the water flow," Snr Const Johnston said.
Four men helped him while he anchored Dion with a rope around his free leg.
They tried to pull him out using the trailer tie, but that snapped.
"He had water underneath as well as over the top," Snr Const Johnston said.
Snr Const Johnston had taken a diving mask into the gorge so could see Dion's leg was trapped, but he could not get right next to him for his own safety.
"I don't think I've ever been in a more helpless position.
"It was a struggle between me not doing something stupid and, I think, it was just the separation, of listening to your head and not your heart and letting the adrenalin rush take over.
"Every minute felt like a hour, waiting for the alpine cliff rescue guys to come and back up the anchor I had put in," Snr Const Johnston said.
After climbers Gavin Dickson, Ritchie Raynes, Gavin Lang, Milo Gilmour, Julian White and Geoff Wayatt arrived, Snr Const Johnston was tethered to an anchor so he could go up to Dion and put a sling around his trapped leg and his wrist.
Mr Gilmour was also tethered and went into the water behind him to break the flow so Snr Const Johnston could do his work.
The climbers then co-ordinated a pendulum-type movement with the ropes and sling to free Dion's trapped leg and get the by-now unconscious and hypothermic youth on to the rocks, where he went into shock and Mr Wayatt commenced CPR.
Dion was unconscious when winched up about 50m by Otago Regional Rescue Helicopter, piloted by Graeme Gale, more than three hours after his ordeal began.
He was stabilised at the scene before he was flown to Dunedin Hospital about 10.45pm, but died several hours later.
Snr Const Johnston confirmed amputation was considered, but discarded, as one option to free Dion.
"He was a fighter. He was a strong kid," he said.
Snr Const Johnston praised the four men helping in the gorge, who he declined to name.
"They were really, really good. I commend them and the support they gave me because it was a very difficult situation," he said.
He also gave credit to the rescue team.
"It is great to be part of that team. The way the Wanaka LandSar worked together as one was one of the most rewarding aspects. It is just unfortunate that we were unable to save Dion," he said.
Alpine Cliff Rescue Team leader and professional climber Gary Dickson said yesterday the team had previously practised in the gorge, which had helped during a particularly tricky operation.
Issues included the sheer steepness and height of the gorge walls, estimated to be at least 35m; and the water flow.
"The great thing about yesterday was everyone just slotted in where they were asked to slot in."
Mr Dickson said the usually chilly Motatapu River was "remarkably warm" on New Year's Day, but the cool temperature was sapping Dion's energy.
"We were all working against time and the coldness of the water ... Trying to solve the entrapment was the big thing.
The water was squeezing through a tight gap. The person goes in with the flow of water, so you have to take them out the way they went in," he said.
Mr Dickson credited Snr Const Johnston for trying to keep Dion's spirits up and he credited several of Dion's friends, who he said trusted the rescuers and let them get on with their work in frustrating circumstances.
"There wasn't a lot of tools left in the shed and not many experts left in town who we didn't call on yesterday," Mr Dickson said.
The death has been referred to the coroner.
- The alpine-fed gorge is about 10 minutes' drive from Glendhu Bay, Lake Wanaka.
- It is upstream of the popular Motatapu River swimming hole, accessed from a car park on Motatapu Rd.
- It is a common, though not encouraged, practice for swimmers to swim their way up the gorge from the swimming hole and float back down.
- Department of Conservation signs warn about the hazards in the gorge.
- Earlier on New Year's Day, a woman had to be rescued after injuring her knee swimming in the river.
- Queens High School pupil Anna Mary Ryan (17), of Dunedin, died after an accident in the gorge in February 2006.