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Daniel Kelly’s mum Andrea on lessons from son’s Karioitahi drowning death

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Almost nine months ago, Andrea Kelly’s teenage son Daniel drowned at Karioitahi Beach – with his body never found. The grief, says the Pāpāmoa mum, is relentless. She has a message for Kiwis enjoying our watery playgrounds this summer. Cherie Howie reports.

Andrea Kelly lives within strolling distance of a beautiful stretch of Bay of Plenty coastline.

But the 50-year-old won’t be among the thousands making their way to the white sands and blue-green waters of Pāpāmoa Beach this summer.

She can’t look at surf beaches, or rivers. Even waterfalls are out, as she recently discovered on a walk in the central North Island.

“I don’t go to the beach at Pāpāmoa. When I’m driving near the Mount, I don’t even look at the water and when things that have crashing waves come on TV I can’t watch it.

“[At Christmas] my partner and I went to a waterfall and I thought it would be fine. But there was this big, churning water and all of a sudden I’m breaking down because I can’t handle the power and the churning of the water – I just imagine Daniel going through that.”

Daniel, the younger of Kelly’s two sons, drowned at Karioitahi Beach almost nine months ago.

Family, friends and supporters spent weeks scouring the beach and neighbouring coastlines, but the 18-year-old’s body has never been found.

Since Daniel vanished while on a day out with his dog Cairo she lives with a “crushing” feeling of loss – and dread of the unknown – that she’d not wish on anyone, Kelly says.

“People have said I’m strong, but I don’t feel like I’m strong. I’m just a mum who has no choice but to get up everyday and try and do life.”

Daniel Kelly, pictured with his dog Cairo, had been accepted into the Army before his death, his mother Andrea Kelly says.
Daniel Kelly, pictured with his dog Cairo, had been accepted into the Army before his death, his mother Andrea Kelly says.

So when she heard Hiran Joseph had disappeared while swimming with his brother and friends at the beach on Auckland’s West Coast on January 2, her thoughts went immediately to his mum.

“It’s not that it brings it all back, because it’s there everyday smack right in front of me. But it’s just absolutely gutting to hear that another young person, who’s basically the same age as Daniel, has lost his life on the same beach.

“And it’s just awful to think that another mother has to go through what I am going through. I just want to say to her, my heart is with you.”

Hiran Joseph drowned at Karioitahi Beach on January 2. He was 19.
Hiran Joseph drowned at Karioitahi Beach on January 2. He was 19.

The sole blessing, Kelly says, is that Joseph’s family have him back. The 19-year-old’s body was recovered on Sunday.

“I’m really glad to hear they found him.”

It’s a symbol of closure Kelly knows she’ll likely never share.

A club no one wants to join

On April 22 last year Daniel had parked his car above the high tide line, put his towel out, had drinks on ice waiting and had texted a friend to say he’d be home late, all signs her son planned to return from the water, Kelly says.

In November, coroner Alison Mills found Daniel died of accidental drowning between April 22 and April 23.

While his mum will never know exactly what happened, there are clues and – because of that – lessons that can save lives and spare heartache for those left to carry on, she says.

It’s despair hidden in plain sight.

“You’ve got to pretend and put a smile on when you’re out in the shops, but it’s so empty. Like when the person at the supermarket checkout asks, ‘How are you?’ and you’re like, ‘Yeah, fine’, because you’re not going to go into why you’re not really functioning.

“Nobody really understands that you join this awful club of devastated broken people who are just pretending their way through until they get to meet their loved one again.”

Her son Daniel made a “fatal mistake to swim by himself at an empty beach in such a dangerous spot, on such a dangerous beach", Andrea Kelly says. Photo / Alex Cairns
Her son Daniel made a “fatal mistake to swim by himself at an empty beach in such a dangerous spot, on such a dangerous beach”, Andrea Kelly says. Photo / Alex Cairns

Daniel was among 90 people to die in preventable drownings in New Zealand last year, which is a “horrible” statistic to know her son is part of.

The first lesson from his death is to swim only when lifeguard patrols are in place – and always between the flags – at beaches known to be dangerous, she says.

People need to understand how dangerous Karioitahi Beach can be, especially where Daniel disappeared, Kelly says.

“Most people from out of town wouldn’t know that right in front of where the little waterfall empties into the ocean is a permanent rip. My boy didn’t know that.”

Auckland Council installed signs warning of the specific dangers 13 months before Daniel’s death, after five drowning deaths in two years at the beach and another four deaths still under coronial investigation.

At a later coronial hearing into two of the deaths Surf Life Saving New Zealand national coastal safety manager Dr Mick Kearney said Karioitahi Beach was known for its rips and currents caused by sandbars separated by deep channels.

Karioitahi Beach on Auckland's West Coast has a sad history of drownings.
Karioitahi Beach on Auckland’s West Coast has a sad history of drownings.

Daniel had also gone into the water little more than a day before stormy weather arrived, which she believes affected sea conditions, Kelly says.

A rogue wave that nearly washed away a man collecting mussels near – although out of sight of – Daniel around the time she believes he disappeared may have been what took his life.

And while warning signs were in place, they unfortunately didn’t make a difference for her son, she says.

Kelly wonders if bold signs with minimal – but key – messaging might be more likely to be read by young people.

Ultimately though, she knows young adults can be a hard group to reach.

“I don’t really know what would’ve prevented a young adult with an adventurous spirit to take a refreshing dip on a nice Saturday evening at a spectacular beach, before heading home.”

Daniel Kelly bought a red poppy to support veterans the day he drowned at Kariotahi beach, his mother Andrea Kelly says. 
"He knew what mattered."
Daniel Kelly bought a red poppy to support veterans the day he drowned at Kariotahi beach, his mother Andrea Kelly says.
“He knew what mattered.”

But not talking about what happened to Daniel would “also change nothing”, Kelly says.

“My son made a fatal mistake to swim by himself at an empty beach in such a dangerous spot, on such a dangerous beach. He didn’t realise the risk was so high – just a quick dip.

“It’s a risk that many take, but not all survive, leaving devastated families that are forever changed.”

A loss that endures

One thing she is sure about, and celebrates, is why Daniel went to Karioitahi, a beach he knew as a child spending the first nine years of his life in nearby Waiuku.

“He was just doing what I did at the same age – going around the place, spending the night in the car at some cool spot.

“I just thought, ‘Good on you, you’re getting out there and having some adventures yourself, you’re starting to do life’. It’s part of the joy of life at that age, but they just need to be measured risks.”

Her son, a fan of science, maths and “building things” who’d been accepted into the Army – where he was considering a career in engineering – was loyal and loving, Kelly says.

“I’d gone through surgery and he was taking me anywhere I wanted to, and said I didn’t need to pay him back for petrol or anything. He’d started to take care of the dog’s needs, and he’d go and get groceries.

“And he was a great friend. One of his friends said, ‘Daniel brought out the best in people. He always had your back’.”

The day he died Daniel bought a red poppy to mark Anzac Day, Kelly says.

“He knew what mattered.”

Her son Daniel Kelly had so much to live for, but now neither he nor she will get to see that happen, says Andrea Kelly, pictured with dog Cairo almost nine months after Kelly, 18, drowned at Karioitahi. Photo / Alex Cairns
Her son Daniel Kelly had so much to live for, but now neither he nor she will get to see that happen, says Andrea Kelly, pictured with dog Cairo almost nine months after Kelly, 18, drowned at Karioitahi. Photo / Alex Cairns

She’s getting professional help to deal with her trauma relating to moving water, and hopes to again be able to go back to the beach – a place she’d “loved” growing up, and a place that’s also important to her partner, who surfs.

But nothing will ever take away the feelings of loss after Daniel’s death.

“I wish I could change places with him, because that would at least be the natural way of things. He would’ve done so well in life, and he would’ve given me beautiful grandchildren. But I don’t get to think about that future – he remains 18 forever, and he never gets to have those experiences.

“And I never get to see them through his eyes.”

* A Givealittle page supporting Daniel Kelly’s family remains open, with any future donations used to help pay for Andrea Kelly’s counselling.

Staying safe in the water

  • Know your limits – if in doubt, stay out
  • Always keep young kids within arm’s reach
  • Swim between the red and yellow flags – no one’s drowned between them in NZ
  • Raise a hand to alert lifeguards if you’re struggling in the water, or see someone else struggling. If none are around call 111 and ask for surf life savers
  • Rips often occur when there’s shallow patches in the surf. Look for discoloured or foamy criss-cross water, and be wary of headlands/rocky outcrops as rips can be in those areas too

Source: Surf Life Saving NZ Northern region

Cherie Howie is an Auckland-based reporter who joined the Herald in 2011. She has been a journalist for more than 20 years and specialises in general news and features.



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