Ngatangiia MP Tamaiva Tuavera says had he not changed his mind about what he was doing last Friday afternoon, he would never have seen three young children in severe difficulties in the water, 20 metres off Avana jetty.
The New Zealand-born Cook Islands children, aged between seven and nine, are spending their school holidays in Rarotonga.
“We are so lucky that our village isn’t in mourning right now. It’s just fate that I happened to be here at the right time,” says Tuavera.
Returning to his home from town, Tuavera says he saw maroro (flying fish) being sold on the roadside in Tupapa, and drove past before deciding to turn back and buy a string of them for lunch.
“I was then on my way home to clean the fish and had reached Avana bridge when I thought, ‘Ah, I’ll go and clean my fish by the jetty’, so for the second time, I turned my truck around and went back.”
“There were a couple of tourists walking along the jetty who then left and an elderly man and two children eating at the Mooring Café, but apart from that, there was no-one around, which (I thought) was really unusual.
“I saw those girls and they were a bit hesitant to jump in the water because they’re from New Zealand and not used to (local conditions). There were these two other local boys jumping off the jetty and swimming around the jetty ladder.”
It did cross Tuavera’s mind that the children were very young to be swimming unsupervised.
“Next thing, these girls were in the water, playing around the ladder, then the local boy jumped in and they were all playing around.”
Tuavera says a few moments later, he heard the young boy screaming, “You’re drowning me”. Initially he thought the children were all playing, huddled together in the water.
“The boy popped out of the water and swam back to the jetty.”
By this time, the current had taken the children about 20 metres from the jetty. Tuavera says the girls were hanging on to each other, sinking below the water, resurfacing and struggling. The boy screamed that the girls were drowning.
Tuavera says his first reaction was, “Oh no”, then 17 years of army training kicked in. Tuavera dived into the water and swam to the girls. Grabbing two by the hair and lifting their heads out of the water, he told the third to hang on to his shoulders.
“I thought I could stand in the water, but I couldn’t. It was high tide and with my shoes on I couldn’t kick and I started drinking water too and I was thinking, “What am I going to do with these three children?”
Struggling to reach shore, Tuavera says he managed to reach the sea floor, just managing to tip-toe so his nose was barely out of the water, keeping the girls afloat and calling out to the boys to get help.
“But there was no one here.”
Tuavera says he then saw a male tourist turn up on a motorbike and yelled out for help.
“He took his shirt off and dived in. I gave one of the girls to him. All this time I was tip-toeing in the water because I knew it was better to stay put rather than try and swim against the current with shoes on and dragging the three kids.
“Thinking about it later, we could be having a funeral in the village. There were four little girls there on their own. The smallest was on the beach and didn’t go in. She was screaming the whole time in panic.”
After reaching shore, Tuavera helped the girls recover from their ordeal then walked them home to their family.
“When I think about it now, it would’ve taken me about 30 seconds to take off my shoes, and that’s all it would’ve taken for those little girls to drown.”
Tuavera, a former New Zealand Army coporal, says he’s relieved that what could have been a tragic incident was avoided.
He’s urged the Avana Fishing Club to put up signs warning of the danger of children swimming unsupervised, especially during high tide when a strong current flows out to sea.