Part 1: Holding on for dear life
On February 14, 2023, Constables Mark Bancroft and Kurtis Maney and Detective Constable Patrick Noiseux were part of the large Police rescue operation in Hastings during Cyclone Gabrielle. In presenting the men with Bravery Awards, former governor-general Sir Anand Satyanand said all three officers nearly drowned as they worked through exhaustion to rescue six people from neck deep, fast-flowing, muddy water.
Me, Pat (Patrick Noiseux) and Bansky (Mark Bancroft) were out on the Napier-Hastings Expressway at Pakowhai. We were on the back of a ute leading about six or seven cars through the flow – the water was probably a metre high, if not higher. The truck behind us had eight or nine people on it and then its engine cut out. The current was pushing them off the road so they've decided to jump into the water. That's when us three went, “Shit, we need to get in as well.”
They grabbed a street sign and tried to link arms. We jumped in, linked arms, kicked through that strong current and got to them. Pat had a hold of a woman and lost his footing and went under. I went to grab him and then I've gone under. Then everyone was swept with the current into a hedge. We were stuck there. I remember holding on to an older woman for dear life. I was supporting her with my knee to keep her above the water. I put my arms around her and squeezed so that wherever she went, I went. Her daughter managed to climb further up a tree a bit. So they were my two people, and Mark had two.
Eventually everyone, I don't know how, managed to get hold of a tree or branch or bloody shrub or something. Behind us there were a few younger people but they said they were all right. If someone had asked what we were most concerned about, it wouldn't have been drowning, it was the older people. I know I can swim but I didn’t know if they could.
The one thing that sticks with me is we didn't lose anyone. I remember, it was like slow motion and sounds quite dramatic, but I asked the civvies behind me, “Is that all of us? Is that everyone?” Because I was thinking what if someone had been swept away. Hearing the people behind me say, “Nah, that’s all of us” was the most amazing moment. Knowing they were accounted for and we didn’t have to go home that night thinking that we'd lost someone.
Obviously, the “what if I got swept away” dawns on me sometimes. But I told the boys and I've told everyone since then, it was under control, somehow – controlled chaos, I guess.
Every cross street or road was a raging river. We see these people who tried to stay in the middle of the road, but they get taken out. By the time we arrived, they’re all hanging on to this street sign for their lives. We found out later that one lady was having a heart attack. Her husband told her goodbye.
We know if we don’t jump in, they're going to get washed away and die. We were kind of being a net around them. We're now in chest-deep water with crazy currents. Then I get taken out. I'm gone, I'm under water. I pop out and work my way back to the ute. As I lift my head and get my footing, they all get washed away: Mark, Kurtis, the whole bunch go.
I had a moment where I thought “Shit, I’ve just lost my mates and these people”. Then Mark’s head, to my relief, pops out of the tree and I see Kurtis. They are yelling “we are all right.” I was relieved that they’re not dead but then I'm thinking, “What the f*** do I do? I'm not Superman.”
Then some lights were coming towards me. It was this big truck and trailer with a digger. We get the digger out in the water to use the scoop. Everybody was exhausted and I needed them to, one by one, get in the current while I dragged them around the scoop and pulled them into it while trying not to fall in myself. I did that seven times, one by one. And then the last trip was my mates, Mark and Kurtis. I thought, “Shit, I can’t believe we got out of this.”
Now we’re on the trailer and the water is about up to our feet. Within 15 minutes, the stopbank broke. The water went from barely at the hip to 2.5 metres high. So we climbed on top of the ute, which was on top of the trailer. Then the truck died. We were stuck on top and there was almost 3m of water around us, with debris, cows, what-not passing by and we were exhausted. Finally a boat made it to us.
I didn’t know it was going to turn to custard until it did really. We were supposed to go to Napier but they had closed the road. Then someone approached us and said, “I've got a friend [with a disability] that's in this house on Pakowhai Rd.” She was on the phone to her and she said she couldn’t get out. That's the whole reason we ended up over there because we went to find her.
We actually had to leave her because we couldn't get to her. We yelled to her through the window and through the phone. She said she was fine and would stay on her kitchen bench. When I got back to the station that evening, I got someone to take a boat to get her.
We went from there. We were like, “Oh, while we're here, we might as well just stay and make sure this road’s all good and get everyone out of here.” So we just started collecting people up at the community hall. That’s when the stopbanks behind the hall broke. We got stuck in the hedge after that. The three of us were making sure everyone had a good footing, because we didn’t know how long we were going to be there. It was when we got swept down that we let district command know we might need a little bit of help. And then within 10 or 15 minutes, they had a boat and a couple of choppers out to us but none of them could do anything because we were so far into the hedge and under powerlines.
It was a bit of a miracle that the big truck and digger went past. Looking at the photos now it’s a bit crazy. We were walking up and down that road in the morning and then it was 2.5 metres deep in water. I never thought water could do that so quickly.
What sticks for me the most is driving past where we got stranded. It’s only just down the road from where I live. It's taken me ages to be able to drive past. It’s seeing everyone that lives down there, all their houses, it’s pretty rat-shit to see all the stuff they lost. There's no-one really living down there, it’s all bare houses and barren land. The people we rescued, they’re going to be battling with this for years to come.
Part 2: A battle against time
Police Association Bravery Award recipients Detective Sergeant Heath Jones and Detective Constable Jaime Stewart were at Pakowhai Rd, between the Ngaruroro and Tutaekuri rivers on February 14, 2023. They answered the call to wade through chest-high water to rescue Detective Emily Baker and her two children from their shed roof. They then swam through raging water to rescue an elderly couple who could not swim.
Driving to work, there was a fair bit of damage but nothing to suggest how that day was going to turn out. We started going to bridges in the area to check the height of the water. We drove down to Pakowhai bridge and the call came out that colleague Allan Peychers’ wife and kids were on the roof of their house and could someone go get them.
It took some time to find the right house and as we were walking down there, the current was the most dangerous thing. On the driveway, the water came up to your chest. You felt that if you lost your footing, you may have problems trying to regain it.
We could see Emily on the shed with the two little kiddies. I think it’s fair to say Emily was quite happy to see us. Emily handed me down the eldest boy [4-year-old Harry] who weighs a tonne. I handed him to Jaime, then Emily handed me the baby [Sofia]. When I met up with Jaime, it was clear that Harry was going to be a bit too heavy for Jaime. So we swapped.
Emily came down and quickly dashed into the house to grab a bag. The water had risen quite considerably. I think their house was completely submerged in about an hour after that.
So then we started to make our way out. It was just one foot at a time, sliding it across. We were lucky we didn’t get hit by anything. If something had hit our legs, we would have been gone. And then as we surfaced, the family was bundled into a car and whisked away.
What’s stuck with me is being at the shed looking up at Emily and the kids, but then going back to the house and seeing debris on top of that shed, knowing that it was not going to end well if they had been up there much longer.
After rescuing Emily and her two children we looked to the right of the bridge and we saw an elderly couple who were wading in water up to their armpits. We were loud hailing them but they weren’t responding. Heath decided to walk to them and to try to encourage them to come across.
I started heading down too. I realised they were quite elderly. When I got to them, they were already out of breath from fighting the current. They were pretty relieved to see us.
There was a big stopbank but then it dropped down and then there was another stopbank. And there was basically a flowing river between them. We needed to get them through that river.
Heath and I decided he would hold the female and I would swim the man over.
I asked if the man he could swim and he said, “No”. I said, “Don't worry about anything except trying to keep your head above water.” I kicked off the fence to push us as far as we could. He sank straight away so I had to go underwater and use my body to boost him up to keep him above the water. I remember being so out of breath. Eventually we got him across.
Heath asked if I was OK to swim the woman over as well. She had this heavy bag and was adamant she would not go if that got wet. I figured, because of the stress, she was fixated on it. So I ended up dunking it in the water. I said, “It’s wet now, it’s done. Let's go. I’m exhausted, Heath is exhausted, we don’t have the luxury of time right now.”
I pushed off the fence and swam her back. It was the same sort of thing, I had to keep going under to push her along. We got her there but she was so exhausted, we had to carry her back to a waiting car.
So it was a bloody big day. When I think back about it, one of the biggest things for me was the moment that fence went out and we’d just gone past it. That was when I thought, “Holy shit, we might not come home today.” That was kind of my takeaway, the fact we all did some crazy, stupid shit to help people but also, that we all came back home.