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River plunge

The vehicle that was submerged in the Waipoua River during very high flow. It appeared to have its lights on, but at the time of the rescue there was no one inside. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

Emergency services work to unravel mystery
Incident ‘strongly suggestive of risk’

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The Waipoua River was at dangerously high flow on Sunday after a period of severe rain. PHOTOS/ARTHUR HAWKES

As the Waipoua River raged at the highest level seen in years, a car was found submerged with its lights on at about 7am on Sunday morning.

The vehicle had been reported stolen, police told the Times-Age on Sunday.

The windows were tinted and had to be smashed by Fire and Emergency and it was found to be empty. The whereabouts of any potential passengers was still not known at the time of publication.

Police and firefighters attended the scene, as well as the Life Flight Westpac Rescue Helicopter from Wellington, but the river was deemed too dangerous to pull the vehicle out from the roaring torrent.

Garry Nielsen, the Masterton fire officer in charge of the response, said the crew first had to verify whether there was anyone in the submerged SUV.

“The vehicle was about five metres into a heavily-swollen river, upstream from the Waipoua Bridge.

“We couldn’t determine if there was anyone in there because of the tinted windows, so we ended up having to smash the windows to see if there was anybody inside: it appeared there was nobody in there.

“With the police, we then concentrated on doing a search downstream in case someone had been in there and managed to get out and got washed away.”

Wairarapa Police and Fire and Emergency then carried out a search all the way down to the Ruamahanga River, on both sides, aided by Life Flight.

By Sunday evening, the whereabouts of the car and any passengers was still unknown.

“We don’t even know where the car is now,” Nielsen said. “It may have even been swept to the Colombo Rd bridge by now.”

A police spokesperson said the whereabouts of the passengers was not as yet identified.

“The vehicle has now been submerged and swept downstream. The conditions are too dangerous to pull the vehicle from the river or to deploy the police’s dive squad.

“Police are concerned that someone may have gotten out of the vehicle and gotten into trouble in the water.”

Tony Matheson, a sergeant with Wairarapa Police, said on Sunday evening that there was “no real update”.

The fact that the car was reported stolen, and had been driven into the surging river, meant that there was some risk that a passenger, or passengers, had been washed away.

“It had definitely crashed into the river, it didn’t appear to have been pushed, so it’s strongly suggestive of risk.

“At this stage, we just don’t know.”

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