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The remains of the house where Craig Stevens and fellow volunteer firefighter Dave van Zwanenberg became trapped on the night of February 13, 2023. Photo: GEORGE HEARD/NZ HERALD

The many reviews into the response to Cyclone Gabrielle in February 2023 – the most recent at the end of April – have identified plenty of room for improvement. However, few, if any, could fault the actions of police officers at Muriwai the night the cyclone made landfall. CARLA AMOS reports.

When people ask North Shore constable Maxwell Lewis what happened at Muriwai on the night of February 13, 2023, he is frank: “It wasn’t like dragging people out of a flooding house. Nah, mate, we almost had a slip come down on our heads while we were trying to lift a roof off these firefighters and we didn’t win.”

Maxwell, 28, was working in Kumeu with Constable Ella Williams, 23, when Cyclone Gabrielle began to wreak havoc on the Auckland area. Their late shift was nearly over when a priority message about firefighters trapped in a slip came in.

“Then it was like something out of the movie,” Maxwell says. “It was a real extreme sense of urgency for us both to get there. I drove the hardest I've ever driven.” Ella was not far behind.

Helensville constables Josh Head, 25, who is also a volunteer firefighter, and Cody Tekoronga, 26, were five minutes from clocking out when they saw a “1-Echo” (natural disaster) call at Muriwai. They joined Maxwell and Ella in racing to the scene in the atrocious weather. “The rain was completely insane,” Josh says. “I've never ever experienced that much rain. And the wind … it’s so hard to describe. It literally felt like I was in a tornado.”

Maxwell reached the slip at the same time as two other officers, Simon and Alex, who were working a prevention shift. “We found the slip covering the whole road… me and Alex climbed a fence and then climbed around the front of the slip.”

He then encountered a group of firefighters who confirmed the worst: two of their people were trapped. One had been in radio contact but there was no word from the other volunteer firefighter.

Using tools from wherever they could get them – impact drivers, sledgehammers, electric saws and crowbars – the officers and firefighters clambered on to the pancaked remains of the house where firefighters Craig Stevens and Dave van Zwanenberg had last been seen and began the frantic search.

“Josh spearheaded the physical task of getting us from standing next to the slip to getting to Craig.”

'Seconds from death'

By now it was nearly midnight. Cody and Ella had begun clearing nearby dwellings when they were approached by a panicked resident saying an elderly friend was still inside her house.

“As Cody and I headed there, you could still hear slips coming down,” says Ella. “It was pretty wild and scary being there. She was just two houses from the slip and it was on the hill. So it was pretty dodgy.”

They tried the doors before seeing a light moving inside. “So we just opened the door and there she was, an elderly lady with a candle,” says Cody.

She had heard the commotion outside but had no idea how perilous her situation was.

“We told her, ‘We’ve got to go, now’,” Cody says. “So she grabbed her walking cane. Ella grabbed the woman’s dog and we walked slowly out along the narrow, flooded walkway. We were maybe 10 metres from the bottom and I just started hearing cracking at the top and water was rushing underneath me. I got the walking stick and threw the woman down into a little ditch and I jumped in after her.

“I got up, turned around and saw the land coming down… all this mud came first and then half of the woman’s house and all these trees. The noise was the scariest thing. It finished just short of me – only a couple of metres away. I just felt sick to my stomach.”

Ella was equally terrified: “If we had been five seconds later, we would have all been dead.”

'Craig, can you hear me?'

Back at the first slip, there was finally a breakthrough. Josh heard a faint response from inside the rubble and continued to call out to pinpoint where the voice was coming from while battling the sounds of generators, shouting and banging.

“A weird idea popped into my head from videos I had seen from the Christchurch earthquake,” Josh says. “I thought if everyone shuts up, I will have a better chance of hearing what's going on underneath. So I said, ‘Everyone shut up. Just stop, be quiet’. All this noise of chaos just disappeared… There's nothing but the storm howling, the rain hitting the iron roof. I put my head down a little gap and yelled out, ‘Can you hear me?’ Sure enough, a muffled response right below me.

“We had a chainsaw out. The deputy chief of Muriwai brigade was beside me and Max was backing me up as well. He’s a big bloke so he was doing all the muscle work, clearing all these big timber frames out, clearing these logs out and then, bit by bit, we got down to him – probably about a metre and a half below the roof framing, mud, bushes and stuff.

“I called out again because the fireys told me it was either Dave or Craig. I said, ‘Craig, can hear me?’ and sure enough the voice responded. Then the fireys asked me to call out for Dave. I called, ‘Dave, can you hear me?’ And there was no response.”

Josh remembers that, at one point, he reached into the rubble and Craig found his hand. “We both grabbed hands and there was a quick embrace before we got down to where exactly he was. [I thought], ‘this can't be real life. I must be dreaming. The circumstances were just insane.”

After nearly an hour of hard graft – Maxwell says it felt like 10 hours – they got to Craig.

“The only way I could tell where he was, was I could see these little lips moving in the mud,” Josh says. “I pulled the mud off around his face to make sure his airway was clear. It was a massive relief. I asked where he was hurting. He said, ‘I'm hurting everywhere. Just get me out of here’.”

Josh decided he would take care of Craig while the others cleared a path to get him out. “I was cleaning the blood off his face, trying to get mud out of his eyes and gave him some water. And then I was making him reasonably comfy.”


"The only way I could tell where he was, was I could see these little lips moving in the mud."

- Constable Josh Head

'Too late to run for it'

Then, at 12.30am, just as things were looking up, Maxwell heard rumbling like a massive earthquake. “Then everyone started screaming, ‘Slip! Slip!’ and they all started running. I turned around and everyone had just disappeared.”

Josh says it was like a big crack of lightning over top of them. “I looked up and could see this big shadow coming towards us and I knew straight away that it was another landslip coming down... I don't know why but I decided not to leave Craig. I was speaking to him and it already seemed bleak and, for some stupid reason, I thought that if I left him that might make him lose hope.

“By the time I made that choice, I’d left it too late to run for it… This all happened in a split second.”

Maxwell could see Josh still crouching in the hole next to Craig. “He looked at me and I looked at him and I just said, ‘F***, bro’, kind of, ‘see you later’. I honestly thought, ‘This is it, it's a slip and we’re not getting away’.”

Josh says he leant over Craig’s head, grabbed something and just closed his eyes.

“I waited for the slip thinking I was about be buried. I had a sudden fear of being trapped in there with him. The rumble lasted for what felt like ages. It got louder and louder and the vibrations got heavier and heavier. And then, it just never came over the top of us.

“After that, I told Craig, ‘Don't worry mate, I'm not going to leave you’. And he said, ‘Thank you, I appreciate it’. He knew something ugly had just happened and he at least appreciated that I stuck with him. For me, I feel like that might have given him more will to actually hang in there a little bit.”

Eventually, USAR made the call to take over. Josh says Craig had started to deteriorate and he was starting to fatigue.

“I just stepped back and I pretty much just collapsed. I was so cold and I was in complete shock at what had happened.”

All four officers went back to Muriwai the next day to see the scale of the destruction.

“It wasn't until I got out there during the daylight and I saw how big the slip was that it really settled in – what happened during the night,” Josh says. “The real kicker was a day or two after. I had felt quite proud of what I did. Craig was alive and I believed the reports that he would potentially make a recovery. Then one of the bosses from Fire that I'm quite close to said he’d passed away.

“His injuries were too great and eventually he was put in an induced coma. His family got the chance to say goodbye to him. Literally, upon saying goodbye, he passed away.”

Craig Stevens, 39, died three days after the cyclone first hit. Dave van Zwanenberg’s body was recovered on February 15. It was apparent the 41-year-old had died instantly when the landslide struck.


"He looked at me and I looked at him and I just said, 'F***, bro', kind of, 'see you later'. I honestly thought, 'This is it, it's a slip and we're not getting away'."

- Constable Maxwell Lewis

The aftermath

Cyclone Gabrielle and the events at Muriwai left their mark on Maxwell, Josh, Cody and Ella. Maxwell says he told his sergeant it was “the shittest job” he had been to in his career.

“It was our community, fellow first responders… These guys help us whenever they’re needed and we do the same. They needed our help and we ultimately couldn't do what we needed to do. I know we did everything we can… The silver lining was that Craig was rescued and he was an organ donor. So everything from his body that was good was able to be donated. So that was kind of the silver lining, but it was still a real kick in the guts [that he died].”

Maxwell says he struggled a lot afterwards. “The rain, and the wind, was a real big thing. I found that I would just flash back to key parts and remembering looking at Josh, and him looking at me and thinking, ‘This is us, this is the end’… The psychiatrist says it was a near-death experience. I don't really know if we were close to dying, but we believed we were going to.”

Josh says for months he couldn't stand the smell of clay and mud or the sound of chainsaws. “But I feel like I'm back to normal now. I'm still doing my firefighting in Helensville.”

Cody described it as “definitely one of the biggest, scariest and saddest jobs I’ve been to”.

For Ella, any storm reminds her of how it was that night. “It is the closest near-death experience I've had for sure. It was scary, but at the same time, you’ve just got to do it because no-one else is going to do it… no-one really ever understood how big a night it was unless you were there.”

Maxwell agrees: “No-one really understands the gravity of it… It was not just another job.”


"No-one really ever understood how big a night it was unless you were there."

- Constable Ella Williams

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