Real Life

Young dad’s incredible feat to save his family from certain death

Trapped in their car, perilously close to falling into the freezing river below, PJ Reiri did the only thing he could. He put his life on the line to save his wife and baby daughter.

With a thick plastic shopping bag wrapped around one hand and his hat covering the other, PJ Reiri clung to scrubby gorse, using the toes of his shoes to make footholds in the soil, squinting up at the road far above him.

The young father knew he didn’t have a lot of time to raise the alarm. His wife Ivy and beautiful six-month-old daughter Kyra were huddled in their damaged ute, which was perched on a narrow ledge in a remote part of the North Island, the Waipunga River coursing beneath them.

Just hours earlier, this brand-new family had been safe and sound, discussing plans for their long weekend. It was the Thursday afternoon before Queen’s Birthday weekend and PJ – who is in his final year of an accounting degree at Napier’s Eastern Institute of Technology – knew Ivy wanted to make the most of the holiday.

“She said, ‘Let’s drive to Auckland!'” he recalls. “So we borrowed my dad’s truck and put a few things in that we’d need.” Those things included baby food, a blanket, some clothing for the weekend and nappies. Little did they know these items would contribute to saving their lives.

The Greenlea Rescue Helicopter prepares to lift Ivy and baby Kyra to safety.

PJ and Ivy, both 27, live in Hastings, close to their extended family and their Mormon church. They first met while working at Burger King – but it wasn’t until a few years later, Ivy says, that she “Facebook-stalked” PJ and they started going out. They married in 2012 at the Frimley Park Rose Gardens, with a reception at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Baby Kyra was a longed-for addition to their whanau. Cute as a button, curious, and “always hungry”, Kyra has brought huge joy to PJ and Ivy’s lives. “She is our everything,” Ivy says.

That Thursday, the family set off for the five-hour drive to PJ’s older brother’s house in Auckland, stopping to fill up – and say a prayer – at a service station on the way.

“We always pray before we travel somewhere far away,” PJ tells. “We pray that the vehicle functions safely and that I’m alert while driving.”

Around an hour later, on the desolate Napier-Taupo Road, something went horribly wrong.

The young couple married in 2012.

“I was on a straight patch of road headed uphill when the car started to slide sideways,” PJ remembers. “I think we might have hit ice or gravel – I’m not sure. I tried to correct it and the car fishtailed all over the road, and suddenly we were facing the cliff edge, and we went over it. I froze. I knew then we would die.”

The ute sailed clean over the road’s edge, flipping before hitting the side of a bluff 100m below and – miraculously – coming to a halt.

Ivy says she blacked out, but when she awoke she had lost her vision. “I was blind and screaming for my baby, but I was also drifting in and out of consciousness – I had smacked into the airbag really hard and was concussed.”

The ute was on its side, the driver’s window smashed and the horn blaring. There was no sound from baby Kyra, but when PJ swivelled to check on her, she was buried under a blanket and their bags.

“I pulled everything off her, then took her clothes off to make sure the blood I could see wasn’t coming from her – and she was fine.”

In fact, the blood was coming from PJ, who had large gashes on his arm. With only the glow of a small interior dome light to work with, he found a T-shirt to tie around his wound, then used three of Kyra’s nappies as bandages.

“But I was worried for Ivy,” the devoted husband recalls. “She didn’t seem able to move. I wondered if she had internal injuries. And her seatbelt had broken in the crash.”

Half an hour later, things got worse. “It started pouring and rain just streamed in the broken windows,” Ivy recalls.

“PJ grabbed the floor mats to block them as best he could. Kyra was snuggled up to me, so he flipped the carseat upside down and shoved that in the gap left by the broken windows as well. But he was getting soaked to the skin. I became really worried about hypothermia setting in. At one stage I saw light in the sky and got excited thinking it was a helicopter coming for us. But then I heard thunder – we were in a big storm.”

Meanwhile, PJ was evaluating their options. “Our mobiles had been flung out of the car. Nobody knew we were there. Only my brother in Auckland was expecting us, but he wouldn’t notice we hadn’t arrived until he woke up the next morning. I looked at the food and water we had – one bottle of water, a can of fizzy drink, one-and-a-half pouches of baby food. It wasn’t much.”

Conditions were freezing, so PJ found the blanket and his jacket, and placed them over his wife and child.

“We prayed together. We didn’t want to die like this. I used a cup to catch the water coming into the car. I was soaked through and shivering all night, so I laid Kyra’s body-suits over my face and neck.”

By dawn, PJ knew what he needed to do. Sticking his head out the window, he worked out where the car was in relation to the river. One false move and it would tumble off the ledge and kill them all.

“Or we could freeze to death. I knew I had to make the climb.”

Ivy says discussing his plan was terrifying. “The worst-case scenario was that he’d slip and we’d hear him come crashing down and into the river below us. We would hear him killed.”

But she also knew her husband was fit and strong – a gym devotee who loves the weight room. PJ covered his family with all the warm clothes he could find, gave them a kiss goodbye and set off.

The climb was treacherous. “It was muddy and there was water running down the hill. About 10 metres up I saw my hat and a reusable bag, and used them to protect my hands. I’d grab gorse and tree roots that were strong enough to hold me and pull myself up.”

Trapped in the truck, Ivy could hear debris and branches crashing down the cliff beside them. “I screamed each time something came tumbling past us. I was so frightened that it was my baby’s dad falling.”

But PJ’s brave choice was the right one. His climb felt like “forever” yet took less than two hours. Clear of the hill, his jacket now shredded and discarded, a topless PJ ran to the road and flagged down a car. Lucky for him, the man who stopped was John Hutchinson, a former police officer.

“There’s no cell signal on that bit of road, so he knew immediately he needed to find a truckie – he waved one down and they got on the RT.”

Before warming up in John’s car, PJ yelled down to Ivy, “I made it – help’s on the way babe!”

“All I heard was ‘babe’ and then I think he said, ‘It’s going to be fine,'” smiles Ivy. “I broke down in tears. I was so grateful, telling Kyra over and over, ‘Your dad did it!'”

Firefighters were first on the scene with two of them abseiling down to check on Ivy and Kyra. “I heard a big ‘Hello!’ and this guy popped his head in the window to talk to us,” says Ivy.

“He kept shaking his head in disbelief. He told me, ‘We’ve been down here so many times, but never this far and they’ve all been fatal.'”

A helicopter was close behind to winch Ivy and Kyra to safety. While Kyra cried the whole way, Ivy describes the experience as “cold, loud, but fun.” From the perspective of the long line, she could see how close the family came to death – a sobering moment.

“I have no idea how we survived,” she says, shaking her head. But she does wonder if PJ’s late mum Virginia had something to do with it.

“She died in 2014, so while we were trapped I prayed to her to watch over us. And then Kyra lifted her head and started smiling at the sky. I think PJ’s mother was looking out for us. She knew it wasn’t our time.”

PJ’s late mum Virginia.

Miraculously, neither PJ, Ivy or Kyra suffered any serious injuries. After a short stay in hospital, all were discharged – tired and hungry. Today, PJ’s arm is still bandaged, but the family is healthy, happy and incredibly thankful.

“We should have died on impact,” says PJ.

The pair have spoken to their congregation about their experience. Ivy admits there have been some sleepless nights since – and a number of nightmares – but the family is healing.

“I often break down and cry – especially when I’m cuddling Kyra because I’m just so happy we still have her,” tells Ivy. “PJ is our hero. Everything he did to keep us warm, everything he did

to save us – he fully took control and I’m super-proud of him.”

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