More than 570 people saved by lifeguards last year, survivor says she owes her life to them

Maree Mitchell shouldn’t be here anymore, and she wouldn’t be if it wasn’t for a massive rescue mission off Port Waikato last May.

Mitchell was one of three people rescued by Kariaotahi lifeguards after spending over an hour being washed around in the ice-cold waters of the Port Waikato bar.

The trio were three of 577 people who had their lives saved by Surf Life Saving New Zealand in 2019.

And Surf Life Saving is expecting a season like no other this summer, with increases of up to 30 per cent of people tipped to hit beaches nationwide.

They had been fishing and were returning to shore when their vessel capsized around 5.30pm, throwing them into the Tasman Sea on May 25, 2019.

They were all wearing life jackets but were being thrown around and underwater as waves continuously crashed on them.

“I was in the water for 90 minutes,” Mitchell said. “During that process we stayed together, wearing life jackets and kept each other safe.”

Emergency crew – from lifeguards to police, rescue helicopter staff to the coastguard, St John to police – descended on the scene with urgency.

Search conditions were beyond tough, with no moon to help illuminate the dark night sky.

The Kariaotahi Surf Life Saving crew searched from the ground while the Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter searched from above.

They found the trio after the police eagle helicopter arrived, spotting the trio – Mitchell, a man, and a 7-year-old child huddled together – around 700m offshore.

Rough conditions meant a winch couldn’t be lowered by the helicopters so an IRB had to be used, with the rescue chopper’s landing lights guiding their path.

Brad Walters, vice president of Surf Life Saving Kariaotahi, was one of the rescuers in the IRB who saved the trio.

To get the IRB into the water, find the trio, get them into the boat, and bring them back to shore took only four minutes.

Mitchell and the young child were found unconscious and Walters feared the worst.

“I actually thought they weren’t with us any more,” he said. “I pulled the two in … I thought they were gone right then and there.

“However, I had that bit of faith they might still be alive … managed to put them in the back of the boat with their heads back to keep the airway open.”

After she was brought to shore, Mitchell received CPR for 90 minutes.

Walters says she was freezing when they pulled her out of the water and for her to make a full recovery is “absolutely insane”.

“She’s a miracle,” he said. “When you see Maree now, you really think of someone who shouldn’t be with us but she is. She’s a living miracle.”

Mitchell says she has a new appreciation for the ocean and how dangerous it can be, as well as the Surf Life Saving New Zealand team.

“I owe my life to them,” she said. “They do an amazing thing and they’re selfless people that put themselves and their own lives at risk – awesome, amazing people.”

What a busy weekend it has been for the SLS Kariaotahi Lifeguards of the Call Out Squad with 2 callouts on the…

Life-saving services and education manager for SLS Allan Munday says this season will be like no other they’ve had before.

In the Coromandel alone, Munday says they are expecting an increase of 30 per cent of people heading to beaches in the region.

“Our message is to help us, help you,” he says. “If you’re going out on new gear, make sure you know how to use the gear.

“Check the conditions, they have to meet your ability … have a plan B, that means life jackets, communication – it could be as simple as a cellphone in a plastic bag.”

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