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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'' Australian anglers.
''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 said.
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 side.
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 overseas.
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 Dunedin Hospital.
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 yesterday.
''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 yesterday.