9 Aug 2012

Searchers in New Plymouth now looking for bodies

8:46 pm on 9 August 2012

Searchers looking for three people missing in the sea off New Plymouth for more than 24 hours are now looking for bodies.

Two students and an instructor disappeared in the water below Paritutu Rock on Wednesday afternoon, after a climbing expedition went wrong.

The missing men are Stephen Lewis Kahukaka-Gedye, 17, a student at Spotswood College, Felipe Melo, an exchange student from Brazil, and Bryce John Jourdain, 42, who was one of two instructors leading the expedition.

Inspector Frank Grant says based on conditions and the time spent in the water, their chances of survival are not great and the focus is now on a recovery operation.

Inspector Grant says a land, sea and air search will continue on Friday.

Thursday's search focused on a 4km area between Omata and Tapawai, based on advice from a specialist in local currents.

Sea conditions prevented police divers going into the water.

Five inflatable boats from local surf clubs along with two other boats have been on the water and helicopters from the Taranaki Rescue Trust, the Airforce and Shell Todd have been in the air.

Inspector Grant says an investigation is underway but it is still too early to speculate on what went wrong.

Searching underway off Paritutu rock this morning.

Searching underway off Paritutu rock this morning. Photo: RNZ

Many variables climbing rock: former instructor

A former manager of the organisation that ran a rock climbs at Paritutu Rock poses different levels of challenge all the time.

The instructor worked for Taranaki Outdoor Pursuits and Education Centre or TOPEC.

Don Paterson, who was TOPEC's assistant manager for 7 years, says the organisation's audited safety system can't cover every possibility.

He says there are so many considerations with wave, wind and tidal variations that it's like playing a game of chess.

Spot known to be dangerous

New Plymouth Mayor Harry Duynhoven says the spot is known to be a dangerous area.

He told Morning Report that there have been deaths there in the past.

Mr Duynhoven said the rock is an abrupt sea wall and gusts of wind and surging seas would have made rescue efforts extremely difficult.

College supporting students

Principal of Spotswood College Mark Bowden says there were no scheduled classes on Thursday and instead a crisis intervention team worked with students.

Mr Bowden says the staff room was turned into a student support centre and people came in all day with food, flowers and offers of help.

He says teachers and counsellors sat with students, and pupils also supported each other.

Mark Bowden would not comment on the circumstances of Wednesday's tragedy but said as a former outdoor education teacher, he knows Paritutu Rock is regularly used for climbing activities.