From trac­tor to river res­cue

Waikato Times - - Front Page - PHILLIPA YALDEN

A vol­un­teer fire­fighter who just hap­pened to be pass­ing in his trac­tor joined col­leagues to res­cue a hy­pother­mic girl cling­ing to a bridge pil­lar in the fast flow­ing Waikato River.

Nathan Spitzer, 31, was driv­ing past the Ngāru­awāhia Fire Sta­tion on his trac­tor around lunchtime yes­ter­day when he heard the town’s fire alarm sound­ing.

The self-em­ployed ru­ral con­trac­tor did a U-turn and swung by to join the crew re­spond­ing to a call to help a child hang­ing off a bridge in the Waikato River.

They ar­rived at the river­bank, off Old Taupiri Rd on the south side of the bridge, around 12.30pm.

‘‘We got there and the po­lice said she’s down in the river, hold­ing on to the pier,’’ the se­nior fire­fighter said. ‘‘She was hug­ging the tim­ber pier shield be­neath the bridge.’’

It ap­peared the eight-year-old had been swimming with oth­ers in the river when she was swept down­stream. Spitzer didn’t know ex­actly how long she’d been in the wa­ter, but said she ap­peared to be

‘‘She was hug­ging the tim­ber pier shield be­neath the bridge.’’

Nathan Spitzer

bor­der­ing on hy­pother­mic. ‘‘She was look­ing pretty cold and tired.’’

With the near­est res­cue boat half an hour away in Huntly, Spitzer stripped to his stub­bies, donned a life­jacket and plunged into the wa­ter.

‘‘I grabbed her a life­jacket as well and de­cided to swim over and get her. It was fairly swift but as long as you use your river ex­pe­ri­ence to nav­i­gate across.’’

Hav­ing been a com­pet­i­tive swim­mer for many years, Spitzer felt com­fort­able in the wa­ter and freestyled the 50m to the pier.

He came up be­hind the girl, ask­ing her if she was okay.

‘‘I told her what I was go­ing to do, put the life­jacket on her and we just drifted across.

‘‘She seemed happy enough and when I said to kick, she kicked. She did well con­sid­er­ing she was shak­ing and shiv­er­ing.’’

Spitzer swam the girl 150 me­tres down­stream back to the river­bank where other fire­fight­ers waded in to grab her.

Ngāru­awāhia Fire Chief Karl Lap­wood com­mended the vol­un­teer fire­fighter’s ac­tions. ‘‘[It was an] ab­so­lutely out­stand­ing ef­fort to get in there and res­cue her.’’

Due to the girl’s con­di­tion, Lap­wood said it was safer to res­cue the girl im­me­di­ately, rather than wait for a res­cue boat.

‘‘Nathan is a top swim­mer, he’s done a lot of swimming and row­ing and is a very pow­er­ful and fit guy.’’

The girl was whisked away by am­bu­lance and taken to Waikato Hos­pi­tal in a se­ri­ous con­di­tion, St John said.

Po­lice were look­ing into how the child came to be swimming at the river and who was with her.

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