15 Jan 2013

Lucky escape after tourist swept down swollen river

10:19 pm on 15 January 2013

Four tourists have had a lucky escape after campervans they were sleeping in were swept down a Nelson river during a heavy downpour.

Steve Harper, Annie Roth, Jim Marshall and Sarah Isaacs had parked near the Waimea River when their vans were swept downstream.

The two couples from the United States and Germany had parked under the Appleby Bridge to shelter from a storm about 50 metres from the water and had tied the vans together with a piece of rope to form a clothesline.

Mr Harper says they had checked the river level before they went to bed on Monday and only light rain was falling.

They woke about 9.30am on Tuesday to find both vehicles surrounded by chest-high water pouring into the vans. After failing to drive out, they climbed out of the windows and tried to save as many of their possessions as possible.

Steve Harper told Radio New Zealand's Checkpoint programme he was startled by the Waimea's rapid rise.

"The van was starting to fill up, it was already to the seats. I immediately rolled down the passenger window and jumped out, tried to save whatever clothes I could and threw them on top of the van.

"Jim just ran by bashing on the window trying to wake us up saying: 'Evacuate, evacuate, evacuate.'"

Mr Harper says he swam after some belongings and was swept downstream by the strong current before managing to grab a branch and pull himself to safety.

"I turned around and there's this uprooted tree that had been broken and splintered and left just like a series of big wooden spears coming at me really fast. I was about to be impaled by a series of spikes and so I just sucked my stomach in to avoid being stabbed."

The group managed to save most of their things, but Mr Harper's girlfriend Annie Roth was left with just the clothes on her back. All say they have learnt their lesson.

Senior Constable Dave Colville says the group are embarrassed, but relieved. He says they were very lucky to have escaped unharmed and advised other campers that parking on a river bed in torrential rain is not a safe option.

The vans were last seen floating down the river and are yet to be located. Police said the harbour masters has been informed.

Heavy flooding in Nelson

The heavy rain in the Nelson area began on Monday afternoon and caused flooding in several homes and businesses in the city.

Blocked drains and gutters turned roads into rivers and Nelson City Council said several streets have had to be closed.

MetService said the rain was due to ease on Tuesday afternoon though intermittent heavy downpours were likely until the evening.