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Our search and rescue heroes

Bill Taylor, Sam Milligan, Murray Johnston, and Nigel Boniface at the Wairarapa Search and Rescue base in Masterton. PHOTO/EMILY IRELAND

Emily Ireland

From retrieving missing trampers to finding murder victims, the volunteers at Wairarapa Search and Rescue have seen it all over the years.

And with more than 100 years of search and rescue experience between just two of the organisation’s active volunteers, it’s safe to say this particular line of unpaid work is a rewarding one.

Sam Milligan who started helping with search and rescue missions in “the early 60s” was a keen tramper from a young age.

Being a young tramper, he would go in with teams of older, more experienced members, “and they nurtured us along”.

“We picked up a lot of tips from them.”

He remembered how search and rescue changed drastically with support from helicopters.

The first recorded helicopter rescue in Wairarapa was on November 13, 1975.

“I’d often go along as an observer with the pilot.

“We’d be tasked to look at potential areas where the missing party could have gone to.

“Nine times out of 10, you’d pick up some sort of sign.”

He recalled the biggest search he was involved in was on Labour weekend in the early 1990s.

A father and his two sons had gone to the Atiwhakatu Hut in the Tararuas to camp overnight and had not returned, he said.

A Wairarapa Search and Rescue drill at Holdsworth in December 1980. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

“We initiated a search and had some ground teams search the riverbanks and had a helicopter overhead and we picked up the bodies of the two boys in the river upstream of Donnelly’s Flat.

“The father was found downstream of Holdsworth Lodge car park.

“By mid-afternoon, we had recovered the three of them and we waited for the undertaker to turn up.

“Then, just after that a hunter had crossed the Waiohine River up from Walls Whare and hadn’t returned.

“So, we swung into action, and by the end of the weekend we had about 15 teams down there, plus rafters and kayakers.

“Then the search was scaled down, and on the Wednesday, his body was found under some trees at the end of Kuratawhiti St.”

When asked how he dealt with the harsh reality of search and rescues, Sam said “you have to be positive and retain a sense of humour”.

“You have to keep a wide view of things. Some people go into search and rescues with tunnel vision.

“Ultimately, every search is rewarding.

“We always like to end the operation with a positive find and I think we have a very good record.

“If we don’t find someone alive, we will find the body – it gives closure to the family.

The next big search Sam was involved in was for six-year-old Featherston girl Coral-Ellen Burrows in September 2003.

This search is vividly remembered by other Wairarapa Search and Rescue volunteers like Bill Taylor who has also given 50 years to the organisation.

Coral-Ellen Burrows was murdered by her mother’s boyfriend, Steven Williams, and her body was found 10 days later when he confessed to killing her.

“That Coral-Ellen Burrows one was really tragic. And this recent one we’ve had was another big one,” Bill said, referring to the 11-day search of missing tramper Darren Myers in June this year.

His body was found during an aerial search.

“The family camped here at the base the whole time.

“They were hell of a nice people. To give them closure was nice.”

Bill said over the 50 years he had volunteered with Wairarapa Search and Rescue, they had “plucked people from certain death through the sheer tenacity of our searchers” – one of the more rewarding outcomes.

“It makes you feel warm and fuzzy.”

He said every search team’s efforts were important on a mission, “because even if they find nothing, at least you know the person isn’t there and you can eliminate the area”.

“It’s just as important to not find anything.”

In terms of gear people should be equipped with on a tramp, Bill said the most important things were good adequate clothing, food, water, radios, first aid kits, and personal locator beacons.

Personal locator beacons can be bought from any outdoors store or can be hired for $5 a day or $30 for a week.

This is a subsidised rate and the PLBs are available to be booked through Masterton Trust Lands Trust.

Wairarapa Search and Rescue chairman Murray Johnston said PLBs should not be thought of as “just for use in the hills”.

“Every back-country farmer should have one because there are so many places in Wairarapa that are out of cell phone range

“I carry one in my car because I drive back roads.

Murray has been involved in search and rescue missions as a volunteer most recently, but also as a policeman.

“You don’t notice the pressure at the time, but certainly, that following day [after a mission], it sinks in.

“The what ifs and maybes.

“The police side of search and rescue, I did from 1989 through to 2010.

“Then I just carried on – but not getting paid for it,” he laughed.

“It was the most rewarding part of police work in the first place and it’s something I really enjoy doing.”

Murray said his first search and rescue mission was for “a skinny hunter from Palmerston North in South Mitre Stream”.

“He was out in a lovely open creek – he would have been spotted by the helicopter in the first 15 minutes of the search – but he thought that the helicopter wouldn’t hear him yelling over the sound of the water, so he walked up the bank.

“He was found by ground teams two days later.

“He was the size of a large child and I asked him, how are you going to carry a deer out if you get one, and he said, Murray, I’ve never had to worry about that because I’ve never got near one.”

Nigel Boniface, another volunteer for Wairarapa Search and Rescue, has been out on many missions over the years, and has only once been in the search party that has found the missing person

“A car had gone off the Remutakas in the early morning.

“Apart from being hypothermic, they were actually okay.”

The woman was found 200m down a steep hill at 4am.

“The options were to get an awful lot of people in and carry her out on a stretcher, or wait until daylight and get the helicopter in, which is what we did.”

To book a personal locator beacon, contact Masterton Trust Lands Trust on 06 370 0155.

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