One fine Sunday morning in November 2021, the family were at their home in Flat Bush. In a bid to stop her teenage sons from sleeping in all day, Radjeep accepted an invitation from a friend to join them for a walk in the Waitākere Ranges.
After the walk, Rajdeep, her husband Gurdeep, sons Manveer and Puneet, along with their friends, headed to Karekare Beach to rest and relax on the beach.
Despite it being early evening, and after the lifeguard patrol had finished, the boys decided to go for a quick swim. After some initial reluctance, Gurdeep decided to join them to keep an eye on his sons.
Both Rajdeep and Gurdeep grew up in India and had only swum in swimming pools. They were not very experienced with Auckland’s West Coast beaches. Radjeep describes her husband as “fit and strong” and her boys as “healthy and active”, both being involved in local football teams and swimming at North Shore and East Auckland beaches.
Not long after the boys, Manveer and Puneet, entered the water, they were caught in a rip and found themselves unable to touch the ground. Their dad swam out to assist but found himself in trouble too.
Fortunately, Shalema Wanden-Hannay, an off-duty lifeguard, spotted the family in trouble. By the time she was able to reach them, she found Gurdeep unconscious in the water and the two boys were encouraging each other to stay calm and stay above the water. Shalema was joined by fellow Karekare lifeguards and together managed to get the family back to the beach where they administered CPR. The boys were checked and monitored by St Johns Ambulance staff and Gurdeep was flown to Auckland Hospital by the Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter in a critical condition.
Gurdeep would spend ten days in hospital with a lung infection.
Once Radjeep arrived at the hospital, she recalls “Gurdeep was asking me about his boys, were they safe? It was the most important question to him. He asked me, have the boys drowned? I said no, he didn’t believe me. Police brought the boys to him, he didn’t believe me until he saw them in front of him,”
The whole family is full of praise for the Karekare lifeguards, police, St Johns Ambulance and rescue staff who helped on the day. They received counselling afterwards but it has still been a long road to recovery. Puneet was initially hesitant to return to the water but both boys have now been back to the beach helped in part by the water safety lessons Manveer took with the Karekare lifeguards. They are now actively promoting water safety within their Sikh community.
Rajdeep explained “We had never been taught about beach safety, rips and things like that. I would just say, swim between the flags, a lot of people go into the water after the flags have gone down and I want to educate them not to do that.”
~ Rajdeep Kaur, November 2021
Family friend Diane Lee remembers Changho as a laughing, friendly young man who was well-liked by the other students. He spent Christmas with Diane and her family where he excitedly told her of his parents upcoming visit to New Zealand and his plans to return to Korea soon after.
After Christmas, Changho visited Auckland with friends then returned to Hamilton on December 27th. On their return trip, he and his friends stopped at a swimming spot on Cambridge’s Lake Karapiro called Keeleys Landing. It is believed Changho jumped into the water with his friends, despite being unable to swim.
Diane still vividly remembers that night. “It was almost dark….it was raining… I got a phone call….. it was from New Zealand police. My heart broke and I did not know what to do. I still can’t forget the dizzying feeling of that night, Roger had left us just like that.”
In the days that followed, Changho’s parents arrived and police searched frantically for his body. Diane and his parents were present when he was found and they were able to gently transport him home to Korea.
Changho’s death left so many questions for his New Zealand friends. “He hated water so much, why did he jump from that high diving point? Did he make the mistake of thinking he was a good swimmer like his friends? Was he trying to blend into the surrounding atmosphere even with his unfamiliar knowledge of the water?” Diane wonders.
For many years Diane returned to Keeley’s Landing every Christmas to remember Changho and throw flowers into the water.
“Even now, New Zealand’s waters have swallowed up more young Koreans, I earnestly pray there will be no more sad news. I pray for that,” she says.
During a moment of distraction, Andy did not see Neko, then six years old, follow an older child into the deeper end of the pool. Suddenly, Neko was going under the water with his arms above his head, desperately trying to push off the bottom of the pool with his feet.
“I rushed to him so fast and beat the lifeguard who was closer to him,” Andy says.
The incident had a significant and long lasting impact on Neko and his attitude to water.
“It was really traumatic for while,” Andy explains. “He had been confident before but afterwards that confidence was gone. He would not go back in the water, in a pool or at the beach or even fishing. We went from going to the pools almost every weekend to not going at all.”
“I was really worried about it because I wanted him to enjoy water, especially as he got older, and I didn’t want him to miss out on doing things in the water with his friends.”
Six years later, Neko’s grandfather came across Drowning Prevention Auckland’s SPLASH holiday programme and Neko, with much hesitation, signed up at West Wave Pools this past April.
The Year Eight Rangeview Intermediate student loved the water competency course, learning a range of different water survival skills such as propulsion through the water, safe entry and exits, survival strokes and lifejacket use.
“The staff and the environment was so positive for him” Andy says. “No one talked down to him, they taught him on his level and made him feel more confident. They were able to push him and encourage him at his level. I wish I had done this course sooner”
Neko was named Most Improved Student at the end of the course and his dad has already noticed the impact of this. “He feels like he can now go in the deep end and not drown, he is so much more confident. Taking him to SPLASH is one of the best things I’ve ever done for my child.”
Neko is now a keen soccer player, representing Auckland at various age groups, but after the SPLASH programme he’s now feeling ready to swap the football field for the odd trip to the beach with his dad again this summer