'Deeply Loved' High School Student Dies After New Zealand Cave Floods During Class Trip

"I think it is every parent's worst possible nightmare to send your child off to school in the morning and not have them returned safely home in the evening," said Prime Minister Chris Hipkins

Getty Abbey Caves in Whangarei, New Zealand
Getty Abbey Caves in Whangarei, New Zealand

A New Zealand high school student died after floodwaters inundated a cave where he and others were exploring during a class trip.

A year 11 Outdoor Education class from Whangārei Boys' High School (WBHS) was visiting Abbey Caves on Tuesday when one student went missing during "a severe weather event," according to a statement from principal Karen Gilbert-Smith.

New Zealand Police Superintendent Tony Hill said the group of 17 people — including 15 students and two adults — was "doing an exercise" when they ran into "difficulty" just after 10:30 a.m. local time.

All but one of the group's members were accounted for until late Tuesday evening, when the victim's body was found inside the caves.

The WBHS Board of Trustees identified the victim as Karnin Ahorangi Petera on Thursday.

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"Karnin was a treasured and deeply loved son, a brother, a friend to so many, and an inspiration to fellow Year 11 students at Whangārei Boys High School," Andrew Carvell, presiding member of the Board, said in a statement shared on Facebook.

National forecaster MetService warned of a downpour shortly before the incident occurred at Abbey Caves, noting that it had potential to "cause streams and rivers to rise rapidly," according to The Guardian.

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Caleb Salisbury, a concreter, told The New Zealand Herald he was working near the caves when three students approached him in tears, and asked for a phone to call for help. However, one boy said there was no cellphone reception in the area.

Two teachers did a headcount a short time later, Salisbury said, per the newspaper. That's when they realized one of the students was missing.

"He [the teacher] thought he'd got them all out," the concreter explained. "I counted 16, he counted 17, so he counted again and then he just broke down and started bawling."

Salisbury said he and another child ran to the caves to see if there was anything they could do to help. The concreter called authorities, who later spoke with the distraught teacher on-site.

The teacher claimed water levels inside the cave rose quickly and "was head deep within a minute," Salisbury told the Herald. Numerous people were "sucked under a ledge" below the teacher, who reportedly pulled five people out from the precarious spot.

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Prime Minister Chris Hipkins issued a statement about the student's tragic death, according to the Herald.

"I think it is every parent's worst possible nightmare to send your child off to school in the morning and not have them returned safely home in the evening," Hipkins said Wednesday. "So I want to on behalf of the whole country send our love and support to the family who are dealing with the tragic loss."

One family member paid tribute to Petera on social media page, describing him as a "beautiful boy" who was loved by many.

"He is now laying in state at his home surrounded by all his whanau [family] and friends," Kim Cuddy wrote.

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On Friday, Karnin's body will be brought to Te Karae, "where he will lay at Paa Te Oro Marae," Cuddy said.

An investigation into Tuesday's fatal incident is ongoing.

The WBHS Board of Trustees "fully" supports a "thorough" investigation, Carvell said in Thursday's statement.

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