There is no fear on Rachael de Jong’s face, just a brilliant smile.
She’s got wet hair, she’s in her togs, standing with four friends on a rock in the middle of a river.
Behind them is clear blue sky and native bush.
A trickle of white water spills into the still pool, just enough for foam to start spreading across dark-green surface.
It’s the sort of photograph which captures the joy of a summer’s day; the perfect moment to remember the fun of a Waitangi Day road trip.
Rachael De Jong
“This is a very hard photo for me to look at,” says Rachael’s father, Kevin de Jong.
“They were having fun. And they just didn’t realise the danger until it was too late.”
Just a few minutes after the selfie photo was taken, his 21-year-old daughter was swept to her death.
The dam gates of the Aratiatia Power Station, just 200 metres upstream, had opened; the trickle turned into a torrent.
Tourists watched – and filmed – in horror as the water swarmed around the rock Rachael and her friends were standing on.
They thought they were safe.
Fear gripped them once they realised the water would not stop, the current would run over the boulder and take them with it.
Kevin de Jong watches the amateur video grimly.
Each girl dives across the rapids, one by one, until the final member of the group is left.
Arms outstretched, she dives into the water. Rachael grabs hold of her, slips, turns to grab the rock and disappears from view.
The photo and video will never be made public.
Kevin de Jong doesn’t want his daughter’s final moments available for all eternity, or the survivors to have a permanent reminder on the internet.
“It’s just too hard. That’s the last time I’ll watch that,” he says of the footage which was suppressed by Coroner Wallace Bain.
These were not “silly girls taking selfies”, says Kevin, choosing to ignore the obvious danger flowing towards them.
Rather, the smiling images recovered from Rachael’s GoPro show their true state of mind.
“They thought they were safe on those rocks,” says Kevin, looking down at the river from the same spot as the tourists who filmed the last moments of his daughter’s life.
“They had no idea of the danger they were in, until it was too late.”
New signs and barriers are now in place. But Kevin de Jong says more can be done to stop another tragedy.
Under the resource consent, a siren must sound three times to warn people of the “tourist spills” – five minutes, then two, then immediately before the opening the dam.
However, no siren would sound if the water needed to be released in an emergency – such as unnaturally high water levels.
Rachael de Jong and others in her group heard the sirens as they walked down the informal track, but saw no signs warning them of the danger.
Warning signs did exist around Aratiatia, near the official carpark and on the DOC tracks.
These were put up by DOC about 12 months before Rachael’s death, at the insistence of Mercury Energy.
But the sign which Rachael would have walked past was stolen two weeks before her death.
Despite knowing it was missing, DOC had not replaced it yet.
The sign was taken from near the entrance to the unofficial track which Rachael took to reach the river
“This trail was created as a result of regular foot traffic through the undergrowth and was not approved by DOC,” senior ranger Murray Cleaver wrote in a report to Coroner Wallace Bain.
“I had been aware for some time that public foot traffic to get to the river created these trails and kept them open.”
Following Rachael’s death, DOC replaced the stolen sign, blocked the unofficial track with a wooden fence and a second steel gate on top of the cliff.
Ropes that visitors had been using to climb down to the river were also cut down.
But the death of Rachael also highlighted confusion over who was responsible for the stretch of water – and if swimming could be banned.
Mercury Energy, which controls the dam, wanted DOC to erect new signs to state “no swimming” rather than just a warning about the risk.
The power company believed a bylaw of the Waikato Regional Council prohibited swimming within 200m of a hydro structure.
This issue had been raised by Mercury Energy “on a number of occasions” before Rachael’s death, as it wanted the council’s harbourmaster to enforce the bylaw.
Eventually, DOC did replace the signs on Mercury’s advice.
But in response to Mercury’s assertion about the bylaw, the Waikato Regional Council said it had no power to ban swimming in the river.
The bylaw was designed as a mechanism to regulate boating activity, according to the council’s legal advice, not ban swimming in an area which boats cannot even access.
In the end, an internal review by Mercury Energy concluded it could have done nothing else.
In a press release announcing the tourist spills would resume, 10 days after Rachael’s death, chief executive Fraser Whineray said the “real challenge” was to make people take heed of the warnings.
“The most important message we want the public to take away from this is to please, at all times, stay out of the Aratiatia Rapids – it’s not a place to swim or be in the water.”
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