Helicopter pilot James Ford was spraying on Cecil Peak Station near Queenstown when he heard a distress call over his radio about a tandem skydive crash.
It set off a chain of events on Wednesday involving two of his colleagues on land that resulted in the water rescue of a dazed skydive instructor who had just plunged into the icy waters of Lake Wakatipu.
“It’s just a case of [being] bloomin’ lucky, to be honest, bloomin’ lucky,” station manager Philip Rive said last night. “It was a team effort.”
The instructor’s passenger, a tourist in his 20s who was travelling in New Zealand alone, is missing, presumed drowned. It emerged yesterday he and the instructor were the last of nine pairs to jump from the NZONE skydive plane about 1.40pm on Tuesday afternoon.
Mr Rive said he was working on the station bordering Lake Wakatipu that day when he received Mr Ford’s call about the accident. Mr Ford was flying his helicopter on the eastern side of the property when he learned of the accident and quickly called Mr Rive, who decided to lend a hand.
Mr Rive predicted he was 30 minutes’ running distance from his boat on the lake’s shore, so Mr Ford flew him down to his boat where Mr Rive’s wife, Kate, was getting the vessel ready.
Mr Rive said he and his wife quickly sped to the location where a skydiving plane was circling near Jacks Point and found the tandem master in the water.
“Kate manoeuvred the boat right beside him and we pulled him on board,” Mr Rive said.
Laying the man down on the engine cover, they continued to search the area for the missing man with the assistance of the helicopter pilot above.
“I don’t know how long we were looking, but the Queenstown Water Taxi has come over and we immediately offloaded the fella we had on board,” Mr Rive said.
“Time was and is of the essence, I suppose.”
He said the skydive instructor was quiet and distressed after being pulled out of Lake Wakatipu.
Mr Rive said the whole rescue operation would not have been possible without Mr Ford notifying him of the accident and his wife lending a hand.
While he was pleased their efforts had helped save the instructor’s life, he could not help but feel sympathy for the family of the passenger, whom a fleet of rescue boats and aircraft were unable to find.
He was unsure how long they spent looking for the missing skydive passenger, but thought if he was in the area they would have found him.
After an extensive search, it is presumed the overseas traveller is dead.
The chief executive of NZONE parent company Experience Co, Anthony Ritter, said the company would undertake its own internal review of the incident and all staff had been offered counselling.Mr Ritter said the fatality was the first death in 27 years of operation.
NZONE staff were working with police and consular officials to try to contact the man’s next of kin.
He dismissed the idea that a parachute malfunction was the potential cause of the crash-landing into the lake, saying it was too soon to determine the cause of the fatal accident.
Otago Lakes-Central area commander Inspector Olaf Jensen said the police national dive squad was considering using a sonar device to search for the missing man’s body.
The squad had not arrived by yesterday evening as it was still “sourcing the equipment we need for the job”.
Using sonar to locate the body was “quite technical” because the lake was about 250m deep at the point he had entered the water, he said.
Transport Accident Investigation Commission lead investigator Barry Stephenson said he and a colleague would spend the next few days interviewing witnesses and NZONE staff, and securing physical evidence.
That evidence would include video footage from a camera on the instructor’s wrist.
– By Luke Kirkness and Matiu Workman, additional reporting by Guy Williams – NZME, Otago Daily Times