National | Cyclone Gabrielle

‘I didn’t care about drowning, I just had to save my mokos’

Photo / Neil Reid, NZ Herald

By Neil Reid, NZ Herald

The brave actions of loving grandfather Jim McIlroy saved his young grandchildren not once, but three times, when Cyclone Gabrielle’s deadly floodwaters surged through Hawke’s Bay.

As floodwaters rapidly rose around Pakowhai – an area renowned for its fruit and vegetable crops on the outskirts of Napier – the family’s car was first swept away, incredibly staying upright in the strong-flowing current, before finally coming to a stop against a fence.

McIlroy then braved the first chest, and then neck-high, flood waters to get his wife and grandchildren into a stranger’s house, and then later onto the roof of the house as the water continued to rise.

“I didn’t care about drowning; I just had to save my mokos,” McIlory told the Herald.

“I wasn’t worried about me.

“My faculties just came to me that I needed to save my mokos.”

McIlroy – the president of the Clive Rugby and Sports Club – had just got home from work when the power went out at his family home on Pakowhai Rd as Cyclone Gabrielle hammered Hawke’s Bay last month.

By 10am, McIlroy – who turned 75 on Wednesday – said conditions started getting “out of hand”.

While there was no surface water on his property – incredibly his is one of only a handful on Pakowhai Rd not to sustain any damage – he could see flood waters developing on land nearby.

McIlroy and his wife Sue then got a call from their daughter Tururhira saying they should evacuate with her two children aged 2 and 1. Tururhira had earlier left to get a gas-powered cooker but was unable to return home because of road closures.

The car carrying Jim McIlroy, his wife, and their two young grandchildren was carried away in the deadly Cyclone Gabrielle flooding and luckily came to a rest against a green fence - which was destroyed by flood waters - on Pakowhai Rd, stopping it from flipping. Photo / Neil Reid

“We were told by the police down the road that [because of flooding further on] we would have to stop and wait near the Pakowhai Hall,” McIlroy said.

McIlroy said – given the section of the road between the hall and his house was still drivable – he would prefer to return home. But the police officer insisted the family stay around the hall, so police could ensure everyone was safe.

But the hall didn’t remain a location of sanctuary for long.

Given the huge amount of rain, and the resulting rapid rise in rivers throughout Hawke’s Bay, the stopbank nearby had broken and would soon result in wave upon wave of strong-flowing water through the area.

“The cop said ... we need to move from here,” McIlroy said.

“We all got on our vehicles, I think there were about seven cars there and a truck.”

Despite the fast-moving water starting to quickly rise on the roadway, the station wagon McIlroy was driving was managing conditions.

But near-tragedy almost struck when a truck in front of him stopped just as McIlroy was going through a dip in the road.

Clive Rugby and Sports Club president Jim McIlroy says he didn't fear drowning, but was determined to do all he could to save his grandkids. Photo / Neil Reid

McIlroy, too, had to stop suddenly. That allowed the water to flood the engine compartment.

“The water went around the motor and that was it,” he said. “If we had of kept going it would have kept the water away from the electrical parts of the car.”

The powerless car was picked up by the now-raging current and swept down Pakowhai Rd.

“I was worrying, ‘Heck, I hope this car doesn’t flip’,” McIlroy said.

“If it had flipped, we would have drowned. I just hoped that it would stay upright . . . I had my mokos in the back of the car with my wife.

“Then we hit something, bang, came back and hit the block wall on the side of the road. Then the vehicle finally got caught up on something and stopped. Before that I was thinking that hopefully the current wouldn’t turn the car over. If it had flipped, we would have died.”

Concrete blocks on a now-demolished green corrugated iron fence had helped save McIlroy, Sue and their young grandchildren.

The family had no time to waste if they wanted to be safe.

The water around the car was now chest height. Intense rainfall – and strong winds – were battering the area.

Household items cleared out from a Pakowhai home badly damaged by Cyclone Gabrielle flooding. Photo / Neil Reid

“My priority was to get the kids out,” McIlroy said.

“I got hold of the two kids and told mum [Sue] that she had to get out. She was having trouble standing because the current was so swift. But I said, ‘We need to get onto this block wall, mum, otherwise we will not survive’.

“So, I had these two little ones. I put them on the wall and they were crying ... poor things. I got the wife over to there and then looked for any way ... to get us out of there.”

McIlroy spotted a nearby property. A man was on the roof and yelled at him: “See if one of the doors is open, go in there”.

“I found a door, it was open and I thought ‘Awesome’,” he said.

“I went back and got Sue with one moko, and I got the other moko. The current, where the door was, was so swift that I had to hold onto the block wall and hold the bubba so I could get in there.

“I put one up on the bench and she stood there and was crying her eyes out, poor little thing. I went back and got the other bubba, held Sue, and managed to get them inside the house.”

Debris litters Brookfields Rd, Pakowhai, almost three weeks on from Cyclone Gabrielle. Photo / Neil Reid

Initially, the McIlroys were able to put their grandchildren on a kitchen bench in the house that was above the waterline.

McIlroy again braved the floodwaters to return to the car so he could get dry clothes for his mokos.

While returning to the house, and given the ever-rapid rise in water, he realised the house’s interior would soon be fully swamped.

“I said to Sue, ‘The water is rising and rising, what we need to do darling is get you fellas on the roof. If we stay in here we are going to drown’,” he recalled.

“I went into the next room and here was this bed floating. I said to Sue, ‘I will carry them over and put them on the bed’. I put them on the bed, told Sue to stay there and watch them and I went off to find somewhere outside the whare where we could get onto the roof.”

By now water in the house was up to chest height.

McIlroy managed to find a stone wall that he would be able to climb and then help both his grandchildren and wife onto the house roof.

Once he had got the trio onto the roof, he again returned to the house to retrieve a bag that had more dry clothes for his grandchildren.

A paddock in Pakowhai strewn with apples, apple crates and other debris. Photo / Neil Reid

“They were soaking wet by then,” he said.

Inside the house, the water was now neck high.

Fortunately, the house had solar panels raised off the ceiling, which afforded the McIlroy’s grandchildren some shelter from the rain and cold.

But the water continued to rise.

“By [the time we were rescued] the water was only about a foot off the top of the roof. We had nowhere else to go.”

Help finally came after McIlroy managed to yell out to a passing jet boat.

The boat’s driver contacted emergency services, who deployed a helicopter to winch them to safety.

“We ended up being choppered out, and waiting [for us] were a lady cop and St John,” McIlroy said. “They were worried about hypothermia with the two little kids. From there we went to the hospital.”

Almost three weeks on from the deadly cyclone unleashing its fury on Hawke’s Bay, McIlroy’s rural home is one of several thousand which remain without power in the region.

The family are using a generator to run several appliances.

“But at least we still have a house,” McIlroy said. “A lot of people around here don’t have a whare. I just feel for them.”

He has been left shocked by the level of damage around the area that he loves so much.

Where orchards once stood, there are now large expanses of land covered in silt and mud.

The majority of homes in the area – like so many others in places like Puketapu, Dartmoor, Esk Valley, Omahu and Fernhill – were swamped by the flood waters, silt and mud.

The roads through Pakowhai feature numerous piles of wrecked home interiors including carpet, shelves, beds and appliances.

JIm McIlroy says he is "devastated" at the level of destruction and his heart goes out to people who have lost so much. Photo / Neil Reid

“I am f****** devastated,” he said of the damage.

“When I first came to Hawke’s Bay there was flooding, but not at this magnitude.

“I have a mate who lives nearby and he has a two-storey home. When the chopper picked him up [from the roof] there was only [about a foot] of the apex of the roof that was left. That is how high the water was.”

The massive clean-up continues this weekend in Pakowhai and other areas badly hit.

Home and business owners are being aided by scores of volunteers who want to do all they can to help with the massive job.

Members of the Clive Rugby and Sports Club third-grade senior team, dubbed the Movement, during cleaning up in Pakowhai. Photo / Supplied

The volunteer crews include Clive’s third-grade seniors side – dubbed The Movement – who are back-to-back winners of their grade.

“I am blown away,” McIlroy said of the volunteer helpers.

“What the thirds are doing is awesome. I am just so proud of the boys and I would like to thank them.”

McIlroy said his grandchildren were doing well and still “over the moon” about getting a helicopter ride.

Sue – like her husband, a legend of the Clive Rugby and Sports Club, including being a two-time Club Person of the Year award-winner – has been left emotionally battered by the ordeal.

Almost three weeks on, McIlroy said just one emotion filled his thoughts.

“I feel alright because I saved my mokos,” he said. “That is all I feel.”