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October 26 2012 6 26 /10 /October /2012 15:10

Harrowing evidence at waterfall death inquest

Dion Latta was lively and sporty and grew up in rural Otago (photo: file)

Dion Latta was lively and sporty and grew up in rural Otago (photo: file)


By 3 News online staff

An Otago coroner has described evidence from the death of Dion Latta as the most harrowing he has read in 33 years.

Dion, a 15-year-old from the Nenthorn Valley outside of Palmerston, died of hypothermia after his right foot became lodged between rocks at a Motatapu Gorge waterfall near Wanaka.


It took rescuers three hours to free the teenager but he died the following day in Dunedin Hospital.

An inquest is being held into his death and coroner David Crerar yesterday heard from those who were involved with the incident.


Senior Constable Michael Johnston, a member of Wanaka’s Search and Rescue team, was one of the first to arrive at the scene. When he got there, Dion had been trapped for around an hour.


“The scene that presented itself was one I met with disbelief. There was a 2-3m waterfall on the left of the narrow gorge and at the top of the waterfall was a foot sticking out approximately 50cm below the top of the rock on the right of the waterfall,” the Otago Daily Times reported.


Mr Johnston tried multiple times to free the schoolboy’s foot but he was at the mercy of the torrent.


At one stage, Mr Johnston had Dion’s hand in his but was washed over the edge of the waterfall and into the raging pool of white water below.


“I tried pulling Dion to the side of the waterfall to reduce the hydraulic pressure on him and hopefully free him. I was unable to move Dion even slightly.

Dion was pulling on my hand which was using up his energy, and in turn, pulling his head out into the flow of the waterfall ... Knowing that we could not free him from this position, I reluctantly let go of his hand,” says Mr Johnston.

Dion’s friend, Ben Simmers, had his statement read at the inquest. He was walking up the gorge with Dion when the incident happened.

“My emotions were going everywhere. One minute I was crying and the next I was praying,” he says.


He ran and got his father, Jeff, who was nearby who tried to rescue Dion. His attempts failed and he was washed over the waterfall too. 


“I wasn't envisaging anything like what I saw. There was a torrent of water going through the rocks where he was. He was under the torrent of water, pinned onto the rocks,” says Mr Simmers.


Mr Crerar asked if there was anything more that could have been done to save Dion.


"I've asked that question many times ... I've been told no,” says Mr Johnston, who had considered amputating the leg.


Since the incident, a sign has been erected in the gorge warning of the dangers of swimming there.


Mr Crerar says a more specific sign located at the waterfall should be put up.


The inquest was adjourned and Mr Crerar reserved his findings.

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