November 29, 2023

‘Tragic incident’: Search for student missing in Whangārei cave called off for the night

Watch: Wild weather lashes North Island.

The search for a student missing after a school group became trapped in a Whangārei cave amid wild weather has been called off for the night.

The student was part of an outdoor education class attending a school camping trip to Abbey Caves when severe weather hit the region, sparking an extensive search and rescue mission to locate the group.

Fifteen Whangārei Boys’ High School year 11 students and two teachers were trapped.

Emergency services were called to the scene after reports were received at around 10.26am. 

The group made it out safely except for one student who remains unaccounted for, Northland District Commander Supt Tony Hill said.

Search and Rescue, USAR, Fire and Emergency, alongside Police, have been searching for the missing student. At 5pm, the search was suspended and is expected to resume at first light on Wednesday.

A cordon will remain in place on Tuesday evening and overnight.

Supt Hill said this is a tragic incident and understands many will be impacted by what has happened today.

“Our thoughts are with the friends and family of the unaccounted-for student and Family Liaison Officers and Victim Support have measures in place to look after them,” he said.

“The school is also being supported by the Ministry of Education’s Traumatic Incident Team.”

He said police will not be speculating on what has occurred while this incident is still unfolding and the family have requested privacy at this time. 

Police will provide a further update when in a position to do so.

Whangārei Boys’ High School principal Karen Gilbert-Smith said the event is “hugely upsetting for our school”. 

“An outdoor education class attended Abbey Caves this morning on a caving trip and encountered a severe weather event,” Gilbert-Smith said in a statement.

“One of our students is currently missing after encountering the weather event. Search and Rescue are currently searching for the young person.”

Gilbert-Smith said the other students have been returned to Whangārei Boys’ High School where they received further medical assessment and were then reunited with their whānau.

“As a school, we are focusing on supporting all whānau, staff and students concerned with this event, and the wider school community, with assistance from iwi and agencies,” Gilbert-Smith said.

“A full and comprehensive investigation of this situation will occur, but for now I have asked the WBHS community to stay united and provide support where required.

“Our school will open tomorrow so we can maintain a sense of routine for our students and staff. We will have support available for all students and staff.

“My thoughts and aroha are with all concerned, especially the whānau of the young person who is missing.”

The Abbey Caves Reserve features dramatic limestone outcrops, sink holes and three significant caves – Organ, Middle and Ivy.

According to the Whangārei District Council, only experienced cavers should enter the underground caves, as there are risks from rapidly rising water and roof falls.

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