Swedish tourists rescued
Late afternoon in January 2017, two Swedish tourists were swept down the swollen head waters of the Waimakariri River in the foothills of the Southern Alps. They were separated in the flood waters and seriously unprepared for a night in near freezing conditions, soaked through and caught out in the open. Luckily one of them was able to activate a personal locator beacon (PLB). Within an hour, a helicopter was on scene, airlifting the couple to safety.
The PLB had transmitted its alert and GPS location to one of the new generation of international search and rescue satellites – there are now more satellites, they are more sophisticated, and each one “sees” more of the Earth’s surface at any one time. The satellite relayed the alert and location to a ground station, which forwarded it to the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ) in Lower Hutt. RCCNZ received that information within minutes of the PLB having been activated.
Aware of a forecast for deteriorating weather, the Search Mission Coordinator John Ashby immediately made contact with the Christchurch rescue helicopter, to discuss local weather conditions and whether a helicopter rescue was possible.
The helicopter operator indicated that there was clear weather to the south, and because the alert was at a low level (500m), he might be able to get in ahead of the deteriorating weather and fly below the worst turbulence.
In about 20 minutes the helicopter was airborne with rescue crew and paramedic on board. Although they made slow and difficult progress due to the bad weather and difficult winds, the covered the approximately 120 kilometres in just over 35 minutes.
The crew located the couple just before 6pm, uplifting and treating them on the flight back to Christchurch. When they were uplifted, one of the pair was hypothermic with everything in their pack, including their synthetic sleeping bag, wet through.
When the tourists were located the temperature was 5°C and falling fast, with winds of 30 knots taking the chill factor to freezing. Without the distress alert, and rapid response by RCCNZ and the rescue helicopter, the rescue would have had to be delayed until the weather had cleared and it was safe to fly, or a ground team could make their way in. It is unlikely that anyone would have got to the pair until the following day, and had they been out overnight, their chances would have been grim.