It was a family excursion the Lake whanau had been looking forward to – a fun sun-filled holiday at Kawau Island in the Hauraki Gulf. Little water-loving Harley, five, was in his element, watching the older children dive into the pool and getting as close to the action as possible.
While the teens playfully raced each other and adults enjoyed a refreshing dip, his mum Makaila turned away to feed her three-month-old baby Stevie-Mae.
But even though he was surrounded by capable swimmers, Makaila tells Woman’s Day this wasn’t enough to stop her over-confident boy disappearing under the water, almost becoming another victim of this year’s tragic Christmas holiday drowning toll that claimed six lives.
It’s a nightmare the Wellsford mum is coming to terms with, still traumatised by the dreadful moment she plucked her near-lifeless son out of the water, fearing the worst.
“He doesn’t remember it,” says the shaken mum-of-two. “I will never forget it. The scariest thing was feeling his little cold body. He felt dead.”
Makaila, 29, can’t believe how close she came to losing her treasured eldest child in late December, the frightening episode silently unfolding in seconds.
She recalls, “All morning I had been saying to the others, ‘Keep an eye on Harley. He’s super-confident around water.’ I had to feed my baby and I said to my sister, ‘I need to feed Stevie.’
“I had my back turned but there were adults in the pool. There was even an ex-Navy Seal and three other teenagers [between 12 and 15] in the water. They were having races and Harley was sitting on a seat.
“Then my sister said, ‘Where’s Harley?’ I turned around and all I could see was his blue swimming cap in the water.”
At this point Makaila sprang into action, plunging fully-clothed into the pool to save her son.
“I put the baby on the ground like a rugby ball, jumped in and pulled him up,” she says. “He was limp and blue and not breathing.”
Frantic with worry, she tore off his snorkel mask and carried him to a picnic table.
“We were trying to talk to him, but he just had a dazed gaze,” she tells.
She willed her barely breathing son to live.
“I thought he was going to die and I wanted to die right then. It wasn’t once that I thought he wasn’t going to make it, it was at least two or three times. It was terrifying. I wouldn’t want any other mum to go through that ever.”
With Kawau First Response, Coastguard and the Westpac Rescue Helicopter arriving to the child’s rescue, Harley was flown to Auckland’s Starship Hospital, where he spent the next six hours under observation.
Recounts Makaila,”His colour didn’t come back for 15 minutes. He was blue. He doesn’t remember the helicopter ride.”
For roofer dad Michael, 29, who had to forgo the trip because of work, learning his son had narrowly cheated death in a chilling phone call from his distressed sister-in-law – and being unable to do anything – was a nightmare.
He tells, “It’s a really horrible feeling just not being there. That was the hardest part. I didn’t really get emotional until I thought I could have been saying goodbye to my son. It was so much more intense when I had a moment to take it in.”
With the holiday abandoned, the family returned to their Wellsford home with Mum and Dad keeping a watchful eye on their boy’s health.
“For the first few days after it happened I kept thinking that I could have been planning my kid’s funeral today,” admits Makaila, her voice faltering.
“I’d been waiting a long time for my daughter – she’s taken a long time to get here – so I was thankful to be welcoming the new year with her, but I never ever thought I’d have to live my life without my son.”
Amazingly, schoolboy Harley’s brush with death seemed to have done little to dampen his enthusiasm for the water, with the family returning to the beach just days later.
Michael, “The last thing I wanted was for my son to associate fear with water. I suggested we go to Mangawhai for a snorkel and he was just straight into it.”
But for Makaila, the events of the life-changing holiday have made her determined to spread a message to all parents and carers with kids around water.
She instructs, “It’s one person’s job to be with the child at all times. You can’t have three people looking after one child. It just doesn’t work – everybody thinks the other person has it and nobody has it.
“I’m lucky I was there. Even though I was away from the pool area, I was the first one in the pool. It’s just one person’s job and you’ve got to be able to touch the child.”
She concludes, “It’s just two seconds and it’s silent. There’s no kid falling over on the concrete letting out a loud yell. There’s just nothing. They just slip away and you don’t know.”