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“Lost his footing, and didn’t come back up.” – Eye witness account

By Beckie Wilson

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When Haylee Casley saw two men digging at the sandbar of Lake Onoke, she wondered how the lone fisherman on the other side was going to make it back.

Moments later she saw the man being swept out to sea.

“I called out to my friend and was like ‘Oh my god he’s going to cross’, and that was it, he was gone.”

The Lower Hutt woman and her friend were fishing at Lake Onoke on Monday afternoon when 34-year-old Bennie Hombrebueno was carries out to sea attempting to cross the open lake mouth.

The lake mouth had been closed by a sand bar and Mr Hombrebueno was fishing in the lake on the Ocean Beach side, she said.

“There were a couple of guys digging to make a channel in the sand bar with small spades,” she said.

“But the whole time we were watching them dig we were thinking ‘Geez, are they going to leave [Mr Hombrebueno] over there?’

“One guy tried to get his attention, but no one actually went over and told him what was happening.”

Mrs Casley said she thought Mr Hombrebueno was possibly staying at Ocean Beach, as he seemed to be aware of what the two men were doing, and continued fishing.

“He looked back after they had dug the channel and water started flowing through it, it softened up parts of the mouth and it made a second opening, and that was when he had tried to come back over.

“He just tried to cross the opening, and with that amount of water that was going through, he just kind of ran across, but because the sand was so soft he lost his footing, and just didn’t come back up.”

When the woman and her friend saw Mr Hombrebueno bobbing in the water, they rang emergency services.

Mrs Casley said where he got swept away wasn’t the part of the sandbar that had been dug out, but had

been formed by the water coming down to the channel where it had been dug by the two men.

She was unsure if the two men digging the channel were with Mr Hombrebueno.

Mrs Casley said she had been coming to Lake Ferry for years, and fished often on the lake.

The day before the incident she and some others crossed the sandbar on their quadbikes as the weather was fine and the sandbar was solid.

But on the morning of the incident the swells were fierce, and strong waves had been crashing over the sandbar. She said she would not have gone near the bar that day.

“Lots of times when it’s closed you cross it, it’s just like a beach. But when it has got a channel running through it, no way.

“My personal opinion is the digging of the channel created the other break away from the sandbar.

“Before they started digging there was no opening. Those people that dug that sandbar, opened that lake.”

Beekeeper, father of four

Mr Hombrebueno was a father of four, with his wife and family back in the Philippines PHOTO/SUPPLIED
Mr Hombrebueno was a father of four, with his wife and family back in the Philippines PHOTO/SUPPLIED

Watson and Son chief executive officer Meryl Watson said Mr Hombrebueno moved to New Zealand and began working as a beekeeper for the company on May 6, last year.

“He was a valued employee of Watson and Son,” she said.

“He has a family of four youngsters, and a wife, back in the Philippines, clearly it is a very sad situation and we are concerned for the family and offer them every support.”

Mr Hombrebueno’s twin brother also worked for the company, and has done since 2013.

The manuka honey company have a substantial Filipino workforce, they come as trained beekeepers from the Philippines, and

Mr Hombrebueno was an example of that, Mrs Watson said.

Wairarapa Filipino Society spokesman Ryan Soriano said the brothers as “friendly and accommodating”, with both enjoying the Kiwi life.

Drowning toll reaches eight

As well as Mr Hombrebueno, there were seven other preventable drownings in the official holiday period from December 23 to January 4, according to Water Safety New Zealand (WSNZ).

The eight drownings all occurred in the North Island, four were people over the age of 55 years-old, and five were males.

WSNZ chief executive, Jonty Mills, said there were zero drownings of those aged between 15-30 over the period.

“We’re still right in the thick of the holiday season and will be for a couple more months yet.

“The water is our playground. All Kiwis need to take responsibility and think water safety first, before participating in any way, shape or form.”

The lowest number for the official holiday period in recent times was two back in 2006, with the highest being eleven in 2008.

Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland is Wairarapa’s Local Democracy Reporter, a Public Interest Journalism role funded through NZ On Air. Emily has worked at the Wairarapa Times-Age for seven years and has a keen interest in council decision-making and transparency.

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