‘I knew I was going in the water’
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The thing Senior Constable Scott Quate remembers most about the day he helped rescue two people from the Waikato River was how freezing the water was.
The memory of that bone-numbing cold has stayed with him – a permanent reminder of the events of August 19 last year.
The temperature was the last thing on his mind when he arrived by chance at Fergusson Bridge about 12.30pm that day.
The weather was quite mild for the time of year, and the 44-year-old road policing officer, who was off duty, was in a T-shirt. He and his partner, Sandy, and baby daughter, Bella, were driving through Cambridge to meet his brother at a cafe. The family were getting together in Cambridge because Sandy’s mother, who had been ill with cancer, had died early the previous day.
When the traffic came to a standstill near the bridge, Scott got out of the car to see what was happening. Below, a man was in the water screaming for help. Nearby, an unconscious woman was floating face-up.
What Scott didn’t know was that the pair had been in a ute, with a trailer attached, that had gone through a barrier and into the fast-flowing river. By the time he arrived, the vehicle had disappeared from sight.
What he did know, however, as soon as he saw the situation, was that he was “going to be getting in the water”.
He asked a bystander to look after his phone and wallet and scrambled down a steep, 10-metre slope to reach the river’s edge.
“In two steps, I was under water. The current took to me about 10 metres downstream to where they were and I grabbed hold of a branch at the edge,” Scott says.
Hooking his right arm over the branch, he was then able to reach out to grab the woman and pull her to him. The man was close behind.
“I rested her head on my chest and he was hanging on to her too. We were both treading water.”
As Scott worked to keep himself and the unconscious woman clear of the water, he was also trying to calm the man, who was fatigued and distressed.
The trio were stranded in the cold torrent until a group of men at the scene managed to find a vehicle tow rope and lower it down the bank.
“Three guys came down near us with the rope. I got it around the woman and they pulled us up, pretty fast and hard.”
When they got to the shallows, Scott immediately began CPR. He succeeded in clearing water from her lungs and she was lifted up the bank to receive further emergency response care.
The man was assisted up the bank and Scott, too, made his way back up to the road.
The relief was great for Sandy when Scott was safely back on land, dripping wet, exhausted and freezing, but unharmed except for a bruised and rope-burnt arm.
The 60-year-old woman was alive when she arrived at the hospital, but, sadly, died two days later.
“When I got the phone call to say she had died, I felt gutted,” Scott says. Even though he has attended many fatal crash scenes and been part of national investigations, that death has remained at the back of his mind, he says.
The Police investigation team noted that the rescued man, in his mid-60s, who was treated for moderate injuries, would almost certainly have died in the freezing and turbulent water if not for Scott’s actions.
“The man rang me a week later and thanked me.”
As Eastern District Commander Superintendent Tania Kura said later, Scott, who is based in Napier, had acted with great courage and presence of mind in very difficult circumstances.
Most notable, perhaps, was that, even off duty, he acted without hesitation, in the presence of his family, and with valour and calm determination, putting the needs of others before his own safety.
No one knew he was a police officer and no one else there had been prepared to take the risk of entering the water. If Scott hadn’t been on the scene, the outcome might have been very different.
Sandy, however, had expected nothing less of her partner. As she looked on anxiously, little Bella was sitting safely in the back of their car watching a Wiggles video and eating takeaways, unaware that her dad was in the middle of a dramatic and life-threatening water rescue.
As the drama unfolded, Sandy was thinking ahead. She contacted members of her family, asking them to bring towels, which they did. Then, they took the humble, unsung hero to Sandy’s mother’s house for a very welcome shower and hot drink.
Scott’s colleagues in Eastern District nominated him for the Police Association Bravery Award, as did the association committee in Waikato.
Former governor-general Sir Anand Satyanand presented Scott with the award at the Police Association’s Annual Conference in Wellington last month.
Accepting the award, Scott made special mention of Sandy and Bella and acknowledged the family of the woman who died. He also thanked those who had nominated him for the award and paid tribute to police colleagues around New Zealand.
“I have no doubt that if any one of them had been in my shoes that day they would have done the same. We come to work, day after day, and we know that we will be standing side by side and shoulder to shoulder with our colleagues under any circumstance. I share this with them for what they do every day as well.”
THE BRAVERY AWARD
The New Zealand Police Association Bravery Award began in 2010 to honour and give peer recognition for the most outstanding acts of bravery by members of Police, on or off duty. The design of the award is based on the sternpost of a Maori waka, traditionally carved to provide guardianship of a journey. The cast bronze sternpost incorporates a Police chevron and represents the strength, resolve and community guardianship of police. The sternpost is topped by a flame of pounamu, representing the outstanding valour of the act of bravery and the high value in which the recipient is held.