Piha drowning: Farewell for two dead Indian nationals, calls for water safety awareness

New Zealand’s drowning toll continues to rise so what’s gone wrong and how can Kiwis stay safe in the water? Video / NZ Herald

A family member of the two men who drowned at Piha Beach is calling for heightened water safety measures saying people don’t realize lifeguard patrol hours are limited.

Yesterday, an emotional farewell ceremony was held to complete the last rites of Saurin Patel and Anshul Shah, two friends who lost their lives at the Auckland west coast beach on Saturday.

Their remains are being repatriated to India today.

Friends Saurin Patel (left) and Anshul Shah (right) lost their lives in the water at Piha Beach on Saturday, and survivor Apurva Modi (middle) is still recovering from the loss.  Photo / Supplied
Friends Saurin Patel (left) and Anshul Shah (right) lost their lives in the water at Piha Beach on Saturday, and survivor Apurva Modi (middle) is still recovering from the loss. Photo / Supplied

Patel, 28, was an electrical engineer who arrived in New Zealand in August, while Shah, 31, worked as a cashier at a petrol station and arrived here in November.

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The pair were roommates in Auckland and both held work visas. Shah was married and his wife was at the beach when the incident occurred.

Relative Jaimini Joshi told the Herald the shock of losing two loved ones in one day was still fresh.

“We all are trying to be as good as we can be.

“I was walking up the stairs to see Anshul’s wife Namrata but I didn’t have the courage. It is shocking that they could have been saved.

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“We need more awareness about water safety in New Zealand.”

New Zealand was famous for its beaches and summer, Joshi said.

“We need extended patrol hours for lifeguards during this time.

“People finish work after 5.30pm and that is the time they would go for a splash especially popular beaches like Piha and Muriwai which are usually busy till late at night.

“Not everyone would know lifeguards are only on until 6pm.

“We need signs which inform people across the beach of this information.”

Swimmers at Piha Beach under the watchful eye of lifeguards, a day after two people died in an unpatrolled section of the beach.  Photo / Alex Burton
Swimmers at Piha Beach under the watchful eye of lifeguards, a day after two people died in an unpatrolled section of the beach. Photo / Alex Burton

Joshi said on Saturday the tragedy happened and the next day the beach was full.

“What have we learned from the drownings?

“The council should take some responsibility for awareness.

“Namrata has lost her family members to Covid. She is still grieving and now she saw her husband die in front of her.

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“It will haunt her for the rest of her life.”

Indian High Commission second secretary Durga Dass earlier said the loss was a “massive tragedy for the Indian community”. The commission had been in touch with the victims’ families.

“We are deeply distressed by the unfortunate incident in which two Indian nationals lost their lives due to drowning at Piha beach near Auckland. High Commission officials are in touch with family members of the deceased both in New Zealand and India.

“The High Commission is providing assistance in every possible way, including for the early repatriation of the mortal remains of both the deceased to India.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families at this difficult time. We would urge everyone to stay safe and follow the local rules and protocols in whatever activities they are engaging in.”

Friends (left to right) Vishaka Nevraker, Namrata Shah, Anshul Shah, Bhumika Bhosle, Apurva Modi, Saurin Nayakumar Patel, Deep Patel and Sonam Patel.  Photo / Supplied
Friends (left to right) Vishaka Nevraker, Namrata Shah, Anshul Shah, Bhumika Bhosle, Apurva Modi, Saurin Nayakumar Patel, Deep Patel and Sonam Patel. Photo / Supplied

A givealittle page had been set up by the men’s friends to support the costs of funeral and repatriation.

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Hours after the emergency unfolded, United North Piha Surf Lifesaving Club president Robert Ferguson praised the efforts of lifeguards, first responders and bystanders who did everything possible to save the pair, who had only spent 30 minutes at the beach before tragedy struck.

He said everyone was shaken by the events, with it ending in the worst possible way. The pair were pulled unconscious from the sea on Auckland’s west coast on Saturday evening. Both were unable to be revived.

“No one slept very well last night,” said Ferguson, who was one of the 50-plus people responding to the unfolding emergency.

“It was like an operating theater on the beach… I’m massively proud of our guys.

“We save hundreds of people every year from drowning and we prevent thousands from swimming in silly places. To lose a couple like that is heart-wrenching.”

He said the lifesaving club’s volunteer patrol was closing down for the day when a lifeguard in the tower spotted two people in the water near the river mouth around 200m from Lion Rock.

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The patrol captain called for preventive action, with two lifeguards sent to tell the pair they were swimming in a dangerous spot and that the guards were going off patrol for the day and to be careful.

“Halfway down he could see that it had gone from a preventive action to a rescue.”

Emergency services were called to Piha Beach just after 6pm on Saturday when two people got into trouble in the water.  Photo / Hayden Woodward
Emergency services were called to Piha Beach just after 6pm on Saturday when two people got into trouble in the water. Photo / Hayden Woodward

Ferguson said after issuing a rescue call a boat was launched.

“By the time the lifeguards had gotten to the position where the swimmers had gone in and put their tubes and fins on and swam out, they were gone.”

He said the pair were described by family at the beach as “non-swimmers”.

And he regarded the spot where the pair chose to swim as one of the most dangerous on the beach.

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“They chose a spot on the beach where it was flat and it’s flat because it’s deep.

“They would have walked in and it might have been waist-deep and two more steps it would have been over their heads.

“We think that’s what happened.

“The rescue boat started the search and then quite quickly found the first victim face down in the water, so they pulled him in the boat.

“They drove him back to the beach for assistance and started resuscitation.”

He said searchers were approached about the whereabouts of a second person.

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Up to five rescue craft were in the water but it was thanks to the police helicopter that the second victim was spotted from the air.

“The police helicopter landed very quickly right next to us and the crew jumped out and ran fully-kitted with helmet, boots, into the water’s edge and just over knee-depth water grabbed hold of the second patient.”

Resuscitation efforts started on that person but it was too late.

Flowers at the North Piha surf lifesaving tower and the beach patrol after the double fatality.  Photo / Alex Burton
Flowers at the North Piha surf lifesaving tower and the beach patrol after the double fatality. Photo / Alex Burton

Ferguson said it was an enormous response with off-duty lifeguards from the Piha Surf Life Saving Club, St John first responders, police, paramedics and locals with expert health skills.

“I am hugely proud of my team and what they did.”

He said it deeply affected everyone involved. There were more than 52 people at the debrief after the incident.

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“If that group of people couldn’t have brought those guys back I think nothing could have.”

From the car park to the sea

Ferguson said he believed the victims had pulled up to a Piha car park and entered the water close to their vehicle – a spot the long-time surf lifesaver would never think of going for a swim.

“They had only been there half an hour. They’d driven down to the beach, walked over the sandhills and straight into the water.

“My understanding is that they were described by the family as ‘non-swimmers’.

“This is my 50th season out here and there are places on the beach I don’t swim because it’s too dangerous.

“Where they went in I wouldn’t have gone in.”

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Just hours after the tragedy there had been an outpouring of support from the close-knit beach community, showing their gratitude in floral tributes.

“We’ve got massive support from our community,” Ferguson said.

“The thing that was extremely difficult this morning was that someone had left flowers on the base of our tower. It’s extremely sad.”

The surf club posted their condolences, extending aroha to the family and friends who lost loved ones at the beach.

Sadly Ferguson said Saturday’s tragedy could have been averted if the pair had basic swimming skills.

“If they would have floated we would have rescued them right there.”

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He reminded anyone swimming at beaches this summer that they needed to swim between the flags.

“If there are no flags don’t swim.”

Water safety information including the hours lifeguards are on duty can be found on the safe swim website.

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