A motorist who came across a truck crash down a steep gorge ravine says he couldn't believe it when he saw someone standing on top of the crumpled wreck.
A motorist who came across a truck crash down a steep gorge ravine says he couldn't believe it when he saw someone standing on top of the crumpled wreck.

Police praised for diving in icy river to save truck driver

THE chopper pilot whose deft skills were at the heart of a heroic rescue of a truck driver who plunged off the road into the Manawatu River has detailed a "bloody great team effort" to save lives.

The cool head and calm hands of Philips Trust Helicopter pilot Barry Vincent battled major winds in a race against time yesterday, helping save a man and woman hurt when the truck they were in plunged 50m into the Manawatu Gorge yesterday morning - and the police who went in to rescue them.

Two police officers have been described as "heroes" after they spent an hour submerged in the Manawatu River keeping the head of the driver above water. Both officers received hospital treatment for hypothermia with one also having to be winched out by chopper.

The two police staffers have been discharged from hospital while the crash victims are in stable condition this morning.

Vincent, who has been a pilot for over 20 years, told the Herald it was one of the most challenging missions of his career and paid tribute to a huge team effort involved.

"It was bloody great to go out and do something right on the community's front door where they can see the efforts which come from the support they give us," Vincent told the Herald today.

"It was major emergency response and a massive team effort from a number of people. This is what we train for, but I was only one part of the team who went down there yesterday."

Vincent has described the highly pressurised situation he and winch operator Kevin Dalzell encountered yesterday morning - as he had to delicately manoeuvre the helicopter into the gorge through buffeting winds.

"From the cockpit I could quite clearly see the truck at the bottom of the ravine and the situation the rescue faced down there was deteriorating. There was a need to do something quickly," he said.

"The crew has to assess the situation we were presented with come up with a plan. It's not the easiest of sites to get into, either by land or air, and the weather conditions were challenging. There was strong wind and rain going through the gorge.

"The wind meant we were facing more than one challenge. When we arrived we were made aware there was one person in the cab and his condition was not good.

"Our job was to retrieve the two patients and we were also asked to pull one of the police out, he was starting to suffer from being down in there for an hour. We winched him out too."

Manawatu Area Commander, Inspector Sarah Stewart, has also praised the big rescue effort.

"Our officers along with all the emergency services at the scene put their lives at risk today to rescue the man and woman who were in the truck," she said. "The flying from the pilot of the Philips Trust Helicopter was incredible and the co-ordinated response from the Palmerston North City Council rescue team, along with fire, ambulance and police services was life-saving."

Senior Constable Ross Andrew and Constable Simon Ashton, both of Palmerston North, were first on the scene and immediately went to the aid of the two people in the truck, she said.

"The female passenger was rescued from the cab first followed by the driver. The officers stayed with the driver in the water for approximately one hour keeping his head above water until the rescue helicopter arrived."

The rescue also involved a paramedic being winched down from the helicopter to the crash site for the driver and passenger.

Once the injured pair were safe, one of the police officers was winched out while the other was able to climb out of the gorge with the help of ropes and other staff, Stewart said. She was "incredibly proud" of both men.

"They are heroes. They went above and beyond the call of duty and put their lives at risk to save the life of the truck driver and his passenger," she said.

Dramatic footage of the effort was uploaded to the police Facebook page yesterday afternoon.

Yesterday, Hawke's Bay Federated Farmer's president Will Foley was left shaken after seeing the submerged wreck which left a wet Manawatu Gorge Rd - about halfway through the gorge - at around 10.30am.

Thinking it was impossible for anyone to survive, he did a double-take when he saw a person standing on the upturned crumpled chassis.

"All I could see was the chassis submerged upside down in the water," he said.

"Then I saw was a guy in a fluoro jacket standing on the truck.

"It's a long way down. It's at least 50m if not more. I can't believe anyone survived."

Another witness Travis Quin says, "Coming through the gorge, you could see wreckage at the bottom of the gorge. It was pretty mangled."

The scene of the crash.
The scene of the crash.

He stopped to get out and look over the barrier.

"You could just see the cab of the truck. They'd already got a paramedic to abseil down there and the driver was laid on the bonnet of the truck with blankets over him and a paramedic right next to him.

"Everyone was quite amazed the driver was still there and they were working on him.
You'd assume from that sort of fall, and looking at the wreckage, that you'd be dead pretty much instantly."

The Manawatu Gorge will be closed from 9am on Monday, to recover the truck.

"A large crane is needed to lift the truck out of the river. The room required for the crane means that we will have to close the road completely while the recovery operation takes place," Ross I'Anson, the new Zealand Transport Agency's acting highway manager, said.

"We know that the Manawatu Gorge is an important route and our contractors are working hard to get the job done as quickly as possible. However, it is challenging terrain and the contractors need to take their time to do the job safely. We appreciate people's patience while we deal with this unexpected incident."

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