Body Found at Whangārei Caves During Search for Missing Student

Photos: Walk my world, RNZ

Searchers have recovered a body at Abbey Caves in Northland where a Year 11 student from Whangārei Boys’ High School went missing after a school trip during bad weather on Tuesday.

Northland District Commander Superintendent Tony Hill announced the discovery of the body shortly before 6.30am on Wednesday.

He said the body was found late on Tuesday night after police continued the search using specialist equipment brought up from Auckland. The search had been expected to conclude around 5pm.

“Initially our thoughts were that we’d have to call it off as daylight closed on us… and concerns to the safety of our staff,” he told RNZ’s Midday Report on Wednesday.

“We managed to get specialist equipment flown up by the police Eagle helicopter to assist us with the search, and once we had that equipment on the ground, the team made the decision that they could continue with the search safely, and… they were able to locate and recover him.”

Hill said the boy was found within the cave system, but he would not comment on how far in his body was. He said the facts of how the boy was killed in the cave will be the subject of a coroner’s inquiry.

“We obviously will be doing an investigation on behalf of the coroner for that. We understand that WorkSafe is doing an investigation as well, and the school are most likely to run their own investigation. All of those investigations will have a focus on culpability and blame.”

Formal ID of the body was yet to take place. Police had been supporting the family, he said.

“Obviously this is a tragedy for them, and our condolences go out to them,” Hill said. “We’ve had a team alongside them from when we first made contact with them yesterday morning, which was near the cave system as such. And our people were still with them, as well as Victim Support, when they were advised of the news late last night.”

Some cordons will remain in place around the caves area while police continued to conduct a routine scene examination, he said. The local council will decide if and when to reopen the caves.

“We acknowledge this event has been very distressing for the school and wider community, and that there are a number of questions the public will have. At the moment, police’s focus is on supporting those affected, and we remind people to please not make assumptions as to what has occurred.”

Fourteen other students and two adults reported being in trouble around 10.30am on Tuesday but made it out of the caves to safety, where they helped by search and rescue teams and St John Ambulance.


A security guard was at the site on Wednesday morning. Photo: RNZ / Tom Taylor

The boy’s whānau expressed their thanks to the emergency services who assisted in the recovery of his body.

In a post on a Whangārei community page, a family member said they felt supported and cared for throughout out the process.

‘Cloak of aroha around the whānau’ Ngāti Kahu o Torongare me Ngā Hapū o Whangārei has placed a rāhui at the caves.

Hapū kaikōrero Hūhana Lyndon was at the site on Tuesday evening for prayer and to offer support to the family.

“We received the call that our tamaiti had been found, and so made our way over with our kaumātua to meet the whānau and to support them as well as all of those kaimahi who worked tirelessly through the day to find him.

“All the emergency support services were united in aroha and grief for our whānau as they came through at the same time as us, once word was received that they had found him.

“It was terribly sad and a horrific situation but being there and united in that aroha manaaki for our whānau at that time certainly gave us strength for today and for the days to come.

“It’s a special tribute to the way with which New Zealand police, search and rescue, all of those support services were there and wrapped a cloak of aroha around the whānau.”

Hapū members had also earlier in the day been with the family as they suffered the grief of not knowing what would happen, she said.

“The wairua does settle once you know that you have your boy back.”

The search for the missing student had been expected to conclude around 5pm on Tuesday but specialist equipment meant it could continue into the evening. Photo: RNZ / Tom Taylor.

Aroha was extended to all the boys who were found and their families and their distress, as well as the staff who were also deeply affected.

“It’s really important to us to manaaki all, to all those affected.

“Our kaumātua are with the school this morning, they assembled early with school leadership as part of what is our approach for managing the emotions and supporting the school culturally and spiritually.”

Kaumātua would help lead in protecting and strengthening the spiritual integrity of the school community, and the Ministry of Education and Victim Support would be sending help, Lyndon said.

The family followed their boy to the hospital after he was recovered from the caves, she said. They needed time and space for themselves and for the wider whānau to be advised.

In a statement on Tuesday, Whangārei Boys’ High School principal Karen Gilbert-Smith promised a full investigation into the trip would be held.

Ministry of Education north leader Isabel Evans said the ministry’s traumatic incident team was at the school to give support, and any investigation would be carried out by the appropriate agency or agencies.

Two Givealittle pages set up in support of the family had attracted several thousand dollars on Wednesday.

Photos: Walk my world, RNZSource: RNZ New Zealand