15 February 2006

Scuba diver found alive against the odds - adrift for 3 days

Plucked from the water after being missing for three days, Robert Hewitt had a shock message for his rescuers: "I've been swimming all the time."

For 75 hours he had been given up for dead, his family praying only for his body to be returned.

A former navy diver, Mr Hewitt, 38, the brother of former All Black Norm Hewitt, had failed to surface from a routine dive off Mana Island on Sunday.

Last night the father-of-three declared that "the love of my fiancee and family is what got me through".

"Appropriate karakia (prayer) to Tangaroa (Maori god of the sea) and to all the friends and well-wishers out there."

The prayer – which Mr Hewitt said in Maori – translated as "a great big thanks to you all". His rescue has confounded experienced divers, with the head of the navy dive squad saying it was unheard of in his 30-year experience.

Mr Hewitt's disappearance sparked a massive search-and-rescue effort. His family gave him up for dead – till 4pm yesterday.

That was when searchers on the Wellington maritime police launch Lady Elizabeth III spotted a black wetsuit hood floating in the water northeast of Mana Island.

Maritime police chief Sergeant John Bryant said they recognised it as a navy diver's hood and continued on the same course. About 10 minutes later, Mr Bryant spotted Mr Hewitt swimming away from the island, about 500 metres offshore.

Disoriented and dehydrated, Mr Hewitt had removed his hood and wetsuit top.

On being pulled from the water, he was immediately covered in blankets and told to lie down to ward off hypothermia.

The first thing he said was: "I've been swimming all the time." He claimed never to have been on Mana Island.

After a few minutes on the launch, Mr Hewitt, who suffered cuts and bruises during his ordeal, said he had survived by eating crayfish and kina from his catch bag. He "talked non-stop" during the voyage to shore – including phoning his fiancee, Rangi Ngatai, Mr Bryant said.

He was eventually reunited with his family amid emotional scenes at Mana Cruising Club before being taken to Wellington Hospital by ambulance.

Ms Ngatai was shocked and overcome by the news of his survival. "I am so grateful, so relieved – I just wanted to have him back. Thank you, thank you, thank you."

Mr Hewitt was recovering from dehydration and sunburn in hospital last night, with Ms Ngatai, his youngest daughter, Kiriana, 6, and his parents, Russell and Mabel, who arrived by helicopter.

Friend Tawehi Munroe said Mr Hewitt's survival was amazing.

"He gave us the thumbs-up as he was transported on the stretcher to the ambulance – he seemed happy. We did not know if he was going to be all right."

Mr Munroe's wife, Puti Puti, said: "There will be a big celebration at the (Ngati Toa) marae."

Mr Hewitt's rescuers were also amazed at his survival skills, Mr Bryant calling it "an amazing example of human fortitude. It just blows me away."

Mr Hewitt, who served with the navy for 20 years, praised "the knowledge that I gained from the navy (that) allowed me to adapt to the different conditions".

Lieutenant Commander David Turner, officer in charge of the navy dive squad, said Mr Hewitt had undertaken a searching four-week training course – including diving to 18m with compressed breathing apparatus – which "set him up for survival in situations like this".

"In that time he would have learned things about himself he wouldn't have known before. But this is absolutely unheard of in my (30-year) experience with (both the British and New Zealand navies)."

How long anyone could survive in the sea depended on water temperatures. Mr Hewitt may have been lucky with the warm sea at this time of year.

Two of his close friends, Lyle Cairns and Buzz Tomoana, were among the eight-strong navy dive team who helped search for him yesterday.

Norm Hewitt says words can not describe how the family felt when his brother was discovered.

"I might seem happy and pleased, but I'm just drained. That long in the water, practically, who survives? My bro does."

An emotional Mr Hewitt had said on Monday that the family was grieving. Yesterday afternoon their prayers were answered in full.

"When we got the news it was overwhelming, unbelievable. I cannot express how thankful we are to everybody who helped – the police, coastguard, navy, army, everybody. We have come home – Robert has come home.

"There have been a lot of prayers going on – the gods have answered our prayers."

Source: www.stuff.co.nz


At 7:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

wow, the story makes me proud to be of the same species. congrats on getting your life back, enjoy it


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