Student 'swept away' in flooded NZ cave as relatives beg for support

Emergency services were called to Abbey Caves at 10.35am, where a group from Whangārei Boys' High School were in difficulty.

·4-min read

A frantic rescue mission is underway after a New Zealand high school student vanished following a group excursion to caves near Whangārei during severe storms.

The top half of the North Island was struck by thunderstorms on Tuesday, leading to flash flooding and the Auckland mayor declaring a state of local emergency.

Further north, emergency services were called at 10.35am (local time) to Abbey Caves, where a group from Whangārei Boys' High School were in difficulty. Local media report a group, including two supervisors and 13 year 11 students, were trapped in a cave.

Emergency services at Abbey Caves on Tuesday.
Emergency services were called at 10.35am to Abbey Caves, where a group from Whangārei Boys' High School were in difficulty. Source: NZ Herald

“A group of people have since made it out safely, however, one student is currently unaccounted for,” Northland Police said. “We have Police Search and Rescue and USAR crews responding to the area.”

School confirms student is missing

In a statement published on the high school’s Facebook page on Tuesday afternoon, principal Karen Gilbert-Smith confirmed the tragic incident.

“An event has occurred today that I want to inform you about, an event that is hugely upsetting for all concerned,” she wrote. “A year 11 Outdoor Education class attended Abbey Caves this morning on a caving trip and encountered a severe weather event. One of our students is currently missing after encountering the weather event.”

Ms Gilbert-Smith said all other members of the group were assessed by paramedics at the scene and returned to the school where they “received further medical assessment” before being reunited with their families.

“In time we will seek to understand how this situation occurred, but for now I ask that we stay united as a WBHS community and provide support where required,” she said, adding that classes would resume on Wednesday after being cut short today. “My thoughts and aroha are with all concerned, especially the whānau [family] of the young person who is missing.”

Police have confirmed the incident is “still very much developing”.

photos of inside the cave, showing its depth.
The council said 'only experienced cavers' should enter the underground caves, 'as there are risks from rapidly rising water and roof falls'. Source: Google Users

Family pleads for support

A woman who claims to be a family member of the missing young man has made an impassioned plea on social media for support. “Whanau, I need prayers. My nephew is lost in Abbey Caves!” she wrote on a group named Friends of Whangārei Stake.

Others have shared their own stories about the apparently notorious Abbey Caves — a series of limestone outcrops, sinkholes and caves in hills nearby Whangārei which are prone to flash flooding.

“My heart is absolutely broken hearing this,” a woman named Bronwyn Hanley said. “Both of my daughters have caved in Abbey Caves on Year 11 school trips and know how tight and dangerous these are.”

Ms Hanley said one of her daughter’s trips also took place in the rain and warned “the water levels can rise pretty quickly”. “Praying for the boy and his family and for a rescue soon,” she added.

In a separate comment, a man said he had also suffered a close call at the caves during an activity for a Young Men’s group at the age of 13. “It started raining when we were in there and the water came down like a creek,” Fabian Kehoe wrote. “Had a prayer and made it out a different exit but were completely disorientated in the dark.”

Mr Kehoe said the group ended up “meandering through the rain in the dark” before they could find a road and walk the kilometre back to their cars. “My prayers go out to him to be guided and comforted and to you all to be strong and faithful,” he said.

In this image released by the New Zealand Defense Force on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, homes in the Esk Valley, near Napier, New Zealand, are flooded. Source: New Zealand Defense Force via AP
Homes in the Esk Valley, near Napier, New Zealand, flooded in February. Source: New Zealand Defense Force via AP

Council's cave warning

The local council’s website states “only experienced cavers” should enter the underground caves, "as there are risks from rapidly rising water and roof falls”.

Whangārei received 60 millimetres of rain in the three hours to midday in the big wet. MetService issued a rare red warning — saved for the most destructive weather events — due to the severe storms passing through the region.

The transport agency reported significant delays on Auckland motorways due to flooding and accidents across the region. Many ferry and train services were suspended and motorists urged to delay any non-essential travel.

The weather prompted Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown to make an emergency declaration. He was widely criticised for delaying a similar call during record flooding in January, when four men were killed in floodwaters.

The front is expected to lash northern North Island until Tuesday evening, before easing.

- with AAP

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