An extraordinary response

Training helped surf lifesaver to respond.

Training helped surf lifesaver to respond.

RUSHED TO HELP OUT: First responder to the Tongan bus crash — Kristina Williams.
HORRIFIC: Katrina described the crash as an ‘apocalyptic scene’.
CRASH SITE: A floral tribute at the crash site. The crash occurred on the Gisborne side of the Wharerata Ranges.

Gisborne volunteer surf lifesaver Kristina Williams talks to Hayley Redpath about how her training gave her the tools to help victims of a horrific crash.

When dozens of bus passengers were injured in a horrific crash near her home last Christmas Eve, mother-of-three and volunteer surf lifesaver Kristina Williams rushed to their aid.

On board were 53 teachers and students from a Tongan college brass band heading to Gisborne. Sione Taumalolo, 11, and Talita Moimoi Fifita, 33, died at the scene, and Leotisia Malakai, 55, died eight days later.

Unexpectedly thrown from the warmth of a family Christmas Eve to tending victims on a cold dark hillside, Kristina credits surf lifesaving for giving her the tools to help.

“The girl we met on the road said it was a bus with lots of kids and my heart sank,” remembers Kristina.

Half an hour earlier, Kristina and extended family were settling down to a fun-filled Christmas Eve with presents to wrap and children to tuck into bed. But all that was shattered when a car pulled up to their rural Muriwai house and a man began shouting.

Ferrying injured passengers from the bus, the distraught driver knew the Williams family and knew they would help. As husband James dialed 111, Kristina grabbed towels, torches, blankets and first aid kits, and with father-in-law Tim Williams and brother-in-law Nick Thorpe headed into the night . . .

Nick says right from the start his sister-in-law assumed the lead role.

“While I was still registering the depth of the situation, Kristina was in the front passenger seat briefing myself and Tim on what we might expect. She’s always been one to go straight in and fix a situation.”

The crash scene on the Gisborne side of the Wharerata Ranges was chaos when they arrived.

Motorists already at the scene were helping dazed passengers. Others were sitting on the road nursing their wounds. And one woman with a shard of glass in her forehead sat on the shattered windscreen that marked where the bus had gone over.

Kristina looked over the edge.

“The vegetation was completely scoured out and I could see something illuminated. It was the light on inside the bus, but you couldn’t see the bus itself. I thought ‘oh my god’ it’s so far down the hill.”

Tossing a first aid kit in front of her, Kristina and Nick picked their way down the steep slope, which was strewn with sharp boulders, flattened tree trunks and blackberry.

Christmas Eve 2016 was a million miles from Zuma Beach, Malibu, USA, where Kristina grew up.

A sweeping surf beach on the Pacific Coast Highway, tourists flock to its picture-perfect shore. Like all beaches with pumping surf, it has rip currents, and in front of Kristina’s old home, 14 lifeguard towers dot the coastline.

It was in front of Tower 7 that Kristina and her siblings honed their ocean skills — learning to swim, surf, and kayak. When she was nine, Kristina joined surf lifesaving and a few years later, she and her sister raised the alarm and rescued two adults from the water.

Surf lifesaving in the US concentrates less on competition and more on lifesaving skills, explains Kristina.

“We learned about first aid, jelly fish stings and broken necks.

“They teach those things early over there — earlier than they do in New Zealand.”

After moving to New Zealand in 2000, Kristina worked in human resources, married James, had three children and now helps run their family businesses.

Training kicked in on the side of that hill

But the ocean is in her blood and in 2014, Kristina joined Waikanae Surf Life Saving Club as a volunteer lifeguard. It was that training that kicked in on the side of the hill on Christmas Eve.

“Right from the start of that night, I recalled my training. I kept trying to remember everything, and I could hear the voice of my surf lifesaving first-aid instructor and the order that he said things in.”

Despite the devastation around her that night, what sticks in Kristina’s mind was the lack of noise. “It was an apocalyptic scene. The injured were trying to walk up this insanely steep cliff in jandals or bare feet. It was so eerie. There were crickets chirping, some moaning from below, but no yelling out for help, or sirens.”

As she descended, she found people who couldn’t move, were cold, in pain or having difficulty breathing. All the while, her first-aid training was on playback — keep safe, comfort the injured, check for breathing, bleeding, signs of shock.

Picking her way through luggage and instruments, Kristina’s worst fears were soon realised. “It took the wind out of my sails. The deceased lady’s friends were sitting in front of her and they turned to me and asked me to check on her. I did, and she was already gone.”

“Kristina used tenderness as she let the woman’s friends know,” adds Nick. “She didn’t cause alarm; she didn’t want anyone to panic. She was using her initiative and instructing people calmly.”

Kristina remembers the moment differently. In “assessment mode”, she has re-lived the decisions she made that night. “Could there have been a chance to do something to help her?”

It’s a question friend, fellow surf lifesaver and Hauora Tairawhiti duty nurse Michelle ‘Mitch’ Mitchell says many ask themselves.

“But she did the right things at the right times. Kristina was an exceptional woman that night. Her questioning is normal and I’ve told her it was a good response.”

Mitch says Kristina’s Christmas Eve actions are a reminder that surf lifesaving arms ordinary members of the public with skills for extraordinary situations.

Founded in 1950, Waikanae is the largest surf club in Gisborne with 450 members, including 80 volunteer lifeguards, a full-time staff member, and a contracted coach.

To keep the city-centre Waikanae Beach patrolled during summer, the club relies on charity funding, sponsorship and donations but, like so many volunteer organisations, it could always do with more.

“The whole operation runs on about $150,000 a year,” says board chair Grant Bramwell, “which is pretty amazing considering the work we do”.

“There’s always equipment to repair or update, and programmes to run such as the training of new lifeguards and the ongoing upskilling of our current lifeguards. These things all come at a huge cost to the club.”

Grant says a first-aid course can cost up to $200 per person and the qualification must be refreshed every two years. Right up until early December, Kristina, along with 30 others, was waiting to hear if her first-aid refresher course would be funded, or need to be self-funded.

“People forget lifeguards are volunteers,” Grant says, and for most of the time there’s never quite enough funding to service what we’re doing.”

Last year, the club carried out 202 preventative measures, and rescued or assisted 27 people who were in trouble in the water. Kristina’s patrol helped with two of those.

On the hill that night, Kristina came across one young man in a “world of pain”.

“It was his leg. It was so damaged. His two friends were in shock, and he was too. Singing, mumbling. I think he was singing a Christmas Carol.”

'Composure was inspiring'

Nick was ripping open suitcases trying to find warm clothes and was in voice contact with Kristina. He says her composure was inspiring.

“She was dealing with a guy who had only a tendon holding his leg to his knee, yet she was incredible. It’s all very well doing first aid in a classroom with manikins, but this was completely different.”

That night, Nick and Kristina faced a lonely task, helping dozens of injured people without professional support, so when their torch lights picked out the high-vis stripes of emergency responders, they heaved sighs of relief.

Emergency-response vehicles, a generator, lights, the sound of communications and dozens of people had descended on the scene.

The next day was Christmas. Kristina hadn’t slept and her thoughts kept returning to what little clothes were in the victims’ suitcases.

Thoughts kept returning to victims of the crash

By 5am, she had set up a Givealittle page which, from the moment it went live, was at the centre of an outpouring of local and national generosity, funnelling donations of food, clothing, luggage, and over $42,000 in cash to the accident victims.

Forsaking her own Christmas, Kristina managed the donations, liaised with support staff and bus passengers, and juggled media queries. If not on the phone, she was at Gisborne Hospital or the Tongan Wesley Methodist Church. Later, she contacted Air New Zealand’s acting CEO and successfully negotiated free flights to help the victims return home.

“Maybe it was guilt. Maybe I was filling a gap. But I wanted to get them all where they wanted to go — and that was home to Tonga,” she says.

Husband James says “that’s what Kristina’s like is life, she just goes for it. She’s very strong-minded, it’s one of her greatest attributes. Since I first met her at Outward Bound 20 years ago, she’s always been mentally and emotionally strong.”

A strong connection with the water

He adds that she’s always had a connection with the water.

“With the ocean mostly, and surf lifesaving, and I suppose that’s where the response reflex that night came from.”

A year on from the accident, Kristina says the events of December 24, 2016 no longer give her nightmares, but she still holds her breath when she drives by the accident site.

“I was in a weird world for about three weeks after the accident, but talking to people like Mitch helped. I guess the thought that plagued me most was ‘could I have done more?’”

Kristina knows her surf-lifesaving training helped her respond and she’s grateful to her previous coaches and trainers. “By putting people like me through those programmes, there’s always hope that one day it may help save a life.”

She’s worried funding shortages are putting pressure on the number of weeks lifeguards around the country can volunteer their services, and she encourages more funders to step up. “Everyone uses the beach but if we’re not careful, the volunteers keeping them safe won’t be able to provide the services expected of them.”

This Christmas Eve, Kristina is in Hawaii with extended family.

Come January, Kristina will be back in Gisborne pulling on her yellow and red lifeguard uniform as a volunteer surf patrol captain at Waikanae Beach.

  • In April, bus driver Talakai Aholelei, 65, was charged with causing the deaths of three people and the injury of more than 20 others, and in October he pleaded guilty. He will be sentenced in Waitakere District Court in January.

Gisborne volunteer surf lifesaver Kristina Williams talks to Hayley Redpath about how her training gave her the tools to help victims of a horrific crash.

When dozens of bus passengers were injured in a horrific crash near her home last Christmas Eve, mother-of-three and volunteer surf lifesaver Kristina Williams rushed to their aid.

On board were 53 teachers and students from a Tongan college brass band heading to Gisborne. Sione Taumalolo, 11, and Talita Moimoi Fifita, 33, died at the scene, and Leotisia Malakai, 55, died eight days later.

Unexpectedly thrown from the warmth of a family Christmas Eve to tending victims on a cold dark hillside, Kristina credits surf lifesaving for giving her the tools to help.

“The girl we met on the road said it was a bus with lots of kids and my heart sank,” remembers Kristina.

Half an hour earlier, Kristina and extended family were settling down to a fun-filled Christmas Eve with presents to wrap and children to tuck into bed. But all that was shattered when a car pulled up to their rural Muriwai house and a man began shouting.

Ferrying injured passengers from the bus, the distraught driver knew the Williams family and knew they would help. As husband James dialed 111, Kristina grabbed towels, torches, blankets and first aid kits, and with father-in-law Tim Williams and brother-in-law Nick Thorpe headed into the night . . .

Nick says right from the start his sister-in-law assumed the lead role.

“While I was still registering the depth of the situation, Kristina was in the front passenger seat briefing myself and Tim on what we might expect. She’s always been one to go straight in and fix a situation.”

The crash scene on the Gisborne side of the Wharerata Ranges was chaos when they arrived.

Motorists already at the scene were helping dazed passengers. Others were sitting on the road nursing their wounds. And one woman with a shard of glass in her forehead sat on the shattered windscreen that marked where the bus had gone over.

Kristina looked over the edge.

“The vegetation was completely scoured out and I could see something illuminated. It was the light on inside the bus, but you couldn’t see the bus itself. I thought ‘oh my god’ it’s so far down the hill.”

Tossing a first aid kit in front of her, Kristina and Nick picked their way down the steep slope, which was strewn with sharp boulders, flattened tree trunks and blackberry.

Christmas Eve 2016 was a million miles from Zuma Beach, Malibu, USA, where Kristina grew up.

A sweeping surf beach on the Pacific Coast Highway, tourists flock to its picture-perfect shore. Like all beaches with pumping surf, it has rip currents, and in front of Kristina’s old home, 14 lifeguard towers dot the coastline.

It was in front of Tower 7 that Kristina and her siblings honed their ocean skills — learning to swim, surf, and kayak. When she was nine, Kristina joined surf lifesaving and a few years later, she and her sister raised the alarm and rescued two adults from the water.

Surf lifesaving in the US concentrates less on competition and more on lifesaving skills, explains Kristina.

“We learned about first aid, jelly fish stings and broken necks.

“They teach those things early over there — earlier than they do in New Zealand.”

After moving to New Zealand in 2000, Kristina worked in human resources, married James, had three children and now helps run their family businesses.

Training kicked in on the side of that hill

But the ocean is in her blood and in 2014, Kristina joined Waikanae Surf Life Saving Club as a volunteer lifeguard. It was that training that kicked in on the side of the hill on Christmas Eve.

“Right from the start of that night, I recalled my training. I kept trying to remember everything, and I could hear the voice of my surf lifesaving first-aid instructor and the order that he said things in.”

Despite the devastation around her that night, what sticks in Kristina’s mind was the lack of noise. “It was an apocalyptic scene. The injured were trying to walk up this insanely steep cliff in jandals or bare feet. It was so eerie. There were crickets chirping, some moaning from below, but no yelling out for help, or sirens.”

As she descended, she found people who couldn’t move, were cold, in pain or having difficulty breathing. All the while, her first-aid training was on playback — keep safe, comfort the injured, check for breathing, bleeding, signs of shock.

Picking her way through luggage and instruments, Kristina’s worst fears were soon realised. “It took the wind out of my sails. The deceased lady’s friends were sitting in front of her and they turned to me and asked me to check on her. I did, and she was already gone.”

“Kristina used tenderness as she let the woman’s friends know,” adds Nick. “She didn’t cause alarm; she didn’t want anyone to panic. She was using her initiative and instructing people calmly.”

Kristina remembers the moment differently. In “assessment mode”, she has re-lived the decisions she made that night. “Could there have been a chance to do something to help her?”

It’s a question friend, fellow surf lifesaver and Hauora Tairawhiti duty nurse Michelle ‘Mitch’ Mitchell says many ask themselves.

“But she did the right things at the right times. Kristina was an exceptional woman that night. Her questioning is normal and I’ve told her it was a good response.”

Mitch says Kristina’s Christmas Eve actions are a reminder that surf lifesaving arms ordinary members of the public with skills for extraordinary situations.

Founded in 1950, Waikanae is the largest surf club in Gisborne with 450 members, including 80 volunteer lifeguards, a full-time staff member, and a contracted coach.

To keep the city-centre Waikanae Beach patrolled during summer, the club relies on charity funding, sponsorship and donations but, like so many volunteer organisations, it could always do with more.

“The whole operation runs on about $150,000 a year,” says board chair Grant Bramwell, “which is pretty amazing considering the work we do”.

“There’s always equipment to repair or update, and programmes to run such as the training of new lifeguards and the ongoing upskilling of our current lifeguards. These things all come at a huge cost to the club.”

Grant says a first-aid course can cost up to $200 per person and the qualification must be refreshed every two years. Right up until early December, Kristina, along with 30 others, was waiting to hear if her first-aid refresher course would be funded, or need to be self-funded.

“People forget lifeguards are volunteers,” Grant says, and for most of the time there’s never quite enough funding to service what we’re doing.”

Last year, the club carried out 202 preventative measures, and rescued or assisted 27 people who were in trouble in the water. Kristina’s patrol helped with two of those.

On the hill that night, Kristina came across one young man in a “world of pain”.

“It was his leg. It was so damaged. His two friends were in shock, and he was too. Singing, mumbling. I think he was singing a Christmas Carol.”

'Composure was inspiring'

Nick was ripping open suitcases trying to find warm clothes and was in voice contact with Kristina. He says her composure was inspiring.

“She was dealing with a guy who had only a tendon holding his leg to his knee, yet she was incredible. It’s all very well doing first aid in a classroom with manikins, but this was completely different.”

That night, Nick and Kristina faced a lonely task, helping dozens of injured people without professional support, so when their torch lights picked out the high-vis stripes of emergency responders, they heaved sighs of relief.

Emergency-response vehicles, a generator, lights, the sound of communications and dozens of people had descended on the scene.

The next day was Christmas. Kristina hadn’t slept and her thoughts kept returning to what little clothes were in the victims’ suitcases.

Thoughts kept returning to victims of the crash

By 5am, she had set up a Givealittle page which, from the moment it went live, was at the centre of an outpouring of local and national generosity, funnelling donations of food, clothing, luggage, and over $42,000 in cash to the accident victims.

Forsaking her own Christmas, Kristina managed the donations, liaised with support staff and bus passengers, and juggled media queries. If not on the phone, she was at Gisborne Hospital or the Tongan Wesley Methodist Church. Later, she contacted Air New Zealand’s acting CEO and successfully negotiated free flights to help the victims return home.

“Maybe it was guilt. Maybe I was filling a gap. But I wanted to get them all where they wanted to go — and that was home to Tonga,” she says.

Husband James says “that’s what Kristina’s like is life, she just goes for it. She’s very strong-minded, it’s one of her greatest attributes. Since I first met her at Outward Bound 20 years ago, she’s always been mentally and emotionally strong.”

A strong connection with the water

He adds that she’s always had a connection with the water.

“With the ocean mostly, and surf lifesaving, and I suppose that’s where the response reflex that night came from.”

A year on from the accident, Kristina says the events of December 24, 2016 no longer give her nightmares, but she still holds her breath when she drives by the accident site.

“I was in a weird world for about three weeks after the accident, but talking to people like Mitch helped. I guess the thought that plagued me most was ‘could I have done more?’”

Kristina knows her surf-lifesaving training helped her respond and she’s grateful to her previous coaches and trainers. “By putting people like me through those programmes, there’s always hope that one day it may help save a life.”

She’s worried funding shortages are putting pressure on the number of weeks lifeguards around the country can volunteer their services, and she encourages more funders to step up. “Everyone uses the beach but if we’re not careful, the volunteers keeping them safe won’t be able to provide the services expected of them.”

This Christmas Eve, Kristina is in Hawaii with extended family.

Come January, Kristina will be back in Gisborne pulling on her yellow and red lifeguard uniform as a volunteer surf patrol captain at Waikanae Beach.

  • In April, bus driver Talakai Aholelei, 65, was charged with causing the deaths of three people and the injury of more than 20 others, and in October he pleaded guilty. He will be sentenced in Waitakere District Court in January.
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