Keenan “Keen” Matthes was a rising star, the captain of his Massey High School rugby team and in line to be a prefect. But the teen’s future was tragically cut short when he was hit by a train while out running in West Auckland on April 20.
“Our son was only 16 years old, with a whole life ahead of him and so many plans,” says his mum Karamea, 38, fighting back tears as she looks across to her husband of 13 years, Presley, 39.
That fateful day began just like any other. Presley got up and went to work early without seeing his son. At around 6am, Karamea heard Keenan heading out on his morning run. When he hadn’t returned at his usual time, she began to feel something wasn’t right.
After reading on Facebook about an incident down at the Ranui train station, she called her son’s phone.
Karamea recalls, “It just went straight to answerphone and that’s when I started panicking. He always had his phone when he ran, so I rang my husband and he said to get down to the train station to look for him.”
A desperate Karamea raced to the tracks and was asking passengers what had happened when she caught the attention of police officers. She told them her son was missing and pleaded for help finding him.
She remembers, “Instead of saying, ‘Everything’s fine,’ the policeman got out his notebook and started asking me about Keen and what he was wearing.”
A shaken Karamea had not even seen her son that morning and instead gave the officer her boy’s phone number. It was then her world came crashing down.
Crying now, Karamea tells, “They confirmed my son’s number matched the phone they had found. That’s when I lost it. I completely lost it.”
Keenan had been running with his headphones and didn’t hear the approaching train when he stepped out onto the railway crossing.
Three months on, Karamea and Presley are still trying to come to terms with their son’s passing and want to make sure he is remembered, especially by their daughters, Kalani, 11, and five-year-old Cecelia.
“Cecelia had him wrapped around her little finger,” says Karamea, smiling sadly. “Every time she did something, she always used to run to Keen.
I’d always see them walking down the path to the shops and she’d come back with lollies. She thought he was the best big brother.”
Kalani tells how she wears a badge with her brother’s name and photo on it every day to school in his memory. There’s also no shortage of photos of Keenan around the family’s home, with framed pictures covering the walls and every table in the living room.
“Keenan was the perfect boy,” says Karamea. “I never had to worry about him – as long as the fridge was full, he was happy!”
In 2005, Karamea was crushed by her own car while trying to save a two-year-old Keenan. He was strapped into the vehicle when it began to roll down the driveway and Karamea threw her body under the wheel.
She was trapped for 45 minutes, but all she could think about was her boy. She’s heartbroken that there was nothing she could do to save Keenan this time.
Proud father Presley says Keenan has left a huge hole in his life and he’s struggled to move forward. Suddenly, there are no Saturday morning rugby games or after-school practices.
He recalls, “I used to say to my son, ‘If you want to get somewhere and be successful, you’ve got to do extras.’ I told him that if you’re out there doing your school work or training, you’re better off than the guy sitting there watching TV.
“I find it so hard now to cope with life because I’d advised him to do stuff like running and I thought it was good advice that he was going out there. But then he didn’t come home that morning.”
In the arms of his wife, the heartbroken dad breaks down in tears. They were never aware of the dangers of headphones before their son’s passing, but now the brave couple has joined an international One Ear Out campaign. It urges pedestrians to stay safe by leaving one ear free of music by only wearing one earbud.
“We’re living in a world of distractions, with tablets, phones and so many devices,” explains Karamea. “So we’ve got to teach our kids how to use them safely.”
She and Presley shared their story on Facebook and a community has built up online. Now people are stopping Karamea on the streets to talk to her and thank her for the message she’s spreading, saying they’ve stopped running with headphones because of her.
That’s all Karamea really wants. “If I was to hear anyone’s life had ended because they’d been wearing headphones like Keenan, it would be like losing our son all over again,” she says.
As painful as it is to talk about their son’s death, she and Presley believe it’s what he would have wanted. Through teary eyes, Karamea adds, “That’s why we’re doing this, to save someone else’s life.”