Muriwai slip: Body found in search for trapped firefighter

2:07 pm on 15 February 2023
Police stop traffic at a road block on Motutara Road, Muriwai, on 14 February, near where a landslide came down onto two houses late on Monday 13 February, 2023.

The scene on Motutara Road yesterday as police blocked off Motutara Road during the search for the missing firefighter. Photo: RNZ/ Tom Taylor

A body has been found by searchers looking for a missing firefighter in Muriwai, on Auckland's west coast.

The firefighter was checking flooding in a property on Motutara Road on Monday, when the property was hit by another house that collapsed during the widespread winds and rains unleashed by Cyclone Gabrielle.

A second firefighter, Craig Stephens, who was in the property at the time got out and was taken to hospital. He is now in critical but stable condition.

In a written update from Fire and Emergency on Wednesday just before 11.30am, they said their teams alongside police had found the body in the Motutara Road search area.

"We have not yet identified who this is and will be working with police to retrieve and identify the body.

"We will provide more information later today. I acknowledge the difficult time this is for all of us, particularly for family, the Muriwai Volunteer Fire Brigade and all at Fire and Emergency New Zealand."

Fire and Emergency (FENZ) asked people to respect the involved families' privacy.

The United Fire Brigades' Association chair Peter Dunne said finding the body would not only be a huge shock for his family but also to all the firefighters and emergency workers around the country.

"It's not the sort of thing you expect to happen and hits those involved when it does very hard."

He said there were several volunteer brigades in the west of Auckland made up of dedicated firefighters drawn from a range of professions.

Dunne said a range of support would be offered to all the firefighters who were putting their lives at risk to help other members of the community.

"It's easy to take what they do for granted because they are there, they are turning out, they are responding but they are all volunteers, they've all got the same situation going on in their own lives and in their own households and yet they are putting the needs of the community first."

They deserved everyone's respect and gratitude, he said.

All firefighters would be reflecting on the loss of a colleague, who would have been a friend of many of them, Dunne said.

In an update from the government on the cyclone response before midday, Emergency Management Minister Kieran McAnulty and Defence Force Minister Andrew Little extended their condolences.

"Our deepest condolences to the family, to the community, and to all volunteers and emergency services - this will no doubt hit hard," McAnulty said.

"We rely on volunteer firefighters, every community in the country relies on them and when they respond to a natural weather event in their own patch, they're leaving their own home and their own family to help others, so that's just an absolute tragedy."

Earlier on Wednesday morning, crews had resumed the search for the firefighter after having to abandon it on Tuesday night when darkness fell, due to safety.

At the time, FENZ chief executive Kerry Gregory said they held out hope to find the firefighter.

"All of our brigades are very much like families, so it's like losing a family member. So it's going to be a long healing process for brigades, because we don't lose firefighters every day. This is really a rare event for us."

Crews had removed 2000 cubic metres of soil and debris, picked apart a house piece by piece and used various means like thermal imaging, a K9 dog, and listening devices to try and locate the missing firefighter.

Other properties on Motutara Road were evacuated too after the slip, and Auckland Council's emergency management team on Tuesday asked property owners in the worst-affected parts of Muriwai to consider their own safety and stay out of their homes for the time being.

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