“Oh Jeez – that’s just great!” The profanity from seasoned Tauranga cop Sergeant Wayne Hunter was very understandable and very forgivable in the circumstances.
Hunter was probably halfway through an uneventful Monday evening shift when he was called to an accident and delivered a bombshell. “Deano’s gone over the side and into the water and we can’t see him anymore.”
‘Deano’ being Senior Constable Deane O’Connor, who has since retired from the force.
“One minute I was going to an accident, then I was going to a fatality; then I was probably dealing with the loss of a police officer, one of our own, one of mine. Jesus!”
Hunter is the supervisor of Road Policing 1 – O’Connor was one of eight officers in that unit at the time.
“People on the bridge were yelling at me: ‘Deano’s gone, Deano’s gone’. We couldn’t see him and we didn’t have a clue where he was.”
Road Policing 1 was a closeknit unit, they’d been together for three years. Liked each other, trusted each other; depended on each other.
“And then I’m thinking one of them’s missing. I don’t know whether he’s alive or dead. And he’s my responsibility. My head was swirling and my heart was thumping,” says Wayne.
Well, history now tells us Deano wasn’t gone – but he frightened the living hell out of his supervisor with his act of extraordinary selflessness and heroism.
And he scared the living hell out of everyone else on the Maungatapu Bridge that brooding winter’s night in August 2013.
But it would win him a New Zealand Bravery Medal.
This is how the story of courage unfolded for O’Connor’s boss – Sergeant Wayne Hunter.
It was 6pm – a car and a van collided on the bridge on State highway 29A. The impact sent the van through the bridge barrier into a black void – the swirling, icy tide five or six metres below.
“I looked over the railing when I arrived,” says Wayne. “You couldn’t see a thing. It was just black. It was scary.”
Deane, now retired senior constable, was patrolling in the Mount/Papamoa traffic car. He was first on the accident scene. And when he saw the van passenger Ashley Donkersley in the water he stripped off and jumped in after him.
By the time Wayne arrived there was “chaos”.
“There were cars everywhere, people yelling and running, there was the wreckage of the car and the damaged barrier the van had gone through.”
“My first thought was this is a fatality. We had to assume someone was still in the van and they couldn’t have survived that length of time in the water.” But how many fatalities? One, possibly two and then possibly three. “I just slipped into a calm, ordered, control mode. Even though my colleague was missing.”
Wayne called a couple of local cops who run jetskis, he ordered up the rescue helicopter and coastguard. Things were in place. “And we were in a holding pattern until help arrived.” Still no sign of Deane or the van passenger though. They were both gone.
“You empathise with what’s going on around you but you have to emotionally detach, otherwise you’d be a raving looney when you get home each night.”
This is the veteran cop of many serious accidents. “But this was the worst because a colleague was missing, possibly dead.”
Then he had to defuse another couple of spontaneous would-be acts of heroism. “A female officer started stripping off to jump in. I just said: ‘No! You are not going in because I can’t afford to lose another officer’.” And another person, a civilian, was tying a rope around his middle ready to jump in.
“It became my job to make sure no-one else ended up in the drink.” It was time for level heads, calm and considered action.
Would the sergeant have been a hero? “I don’t think I could have jumped. It was scary. I remember looking over the railing and into the water and thinking ‘Jeez, that’s a long way down’.”
The sergeant hates heights. “But I seem to be able to park that when I am at work.”
Could he have gone the next step though, done a Deano? “I honestly don’t know.”
The sergeant says ‘Deano’s missus’ asked him why he jumped and Deano “didn’t know”. “It was just something Deano needed to do.”
We now know Deane and Ash were swept by the incoming tide down towards Te Maunga –for 40 minutes, perhaps a couple of kilometres, perhaps more in the freezing water, before being spotted by a shore party.
The call went through to the Sergeant: “Yes we can see them, they are coming ashore”. It was fantastic, I just said: “Yes!” Deano went to hospital that night. Wayne went to the police bar. “But I didn’t sleep much because we could easily have lost Deano.”
Yes, it was a fatal accident on August 12, 2013. Someone did die and the sergeant feels deeply for those involved. Twenty-four-year-old electrician Greg Woledge, who was driving the AMP’T Electrical van that plunged off the bridge into the harbour, was trapped inside on the driver’s side and was unable to be rescued.
But he’s also deeply grateful he didn’t lose his man. “It was an enormously brave thing Deano did and I am very, very proud.”
Senior Constable Deane O’Connor has made a career out of saving lives. He pulled Ashley Donkersley out of the drink and he pulled another person from a burning car before it exploded. He apparently also serves in search and rescue.
But another life might be slipping out of this saviour’s grasp. The retired policeman is in Denmark visiting his son Ricky, who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
The Weekend Sun appreciates the co-operation of Tauranga Police in preparing this story.