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‘No way he could have survived': Dad among dead after bridge collapses, ute swept away

Author
Tom Dillane, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Thu, 23 Feb 2023, 7:04am

‘No way he could have survived': Dad among dead after bridge collapses, ute swept away

Author
Tom Dillane, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Thu, 23 Feb 2023, 7:04am

A Hawke’s Bay father and “very generous” community figure is among the dead from Cyclone Gabrielle after his work truck is believed to have washed away in floodwaters after it was driven over a deceptively collapsed bridge, the Herald can reveal.

One of the few remaining confirmed deaths from the cyclone yet to be identified is Crownthorpe engineer Brendan Miller.

Miller was a father of a young son who he “adored” and was known as “a clever and ... very generous guy” who provided welding and other engineering work to his friends, neighbours and the broader Hastings, Napier area.

It is understood Miller’s body was retrieved from the Kikowhero stream by a neighbour. Miller’s “mobile work station” truck was found a few hundred metres down from a bridge on Omapere Rd that collapsed on the morning of February 14.

Brendan Miller’s truck after it was swept off the Omapere bridge and was washed away in flood waters. Photo / George Heard

Brendan Miller’s truck after it was swept off the Omapere bridge and was washed away in flood waters. Photo / George Heard

Images from when the bridge gave way show a section of about five metres wide missing towards one end, but which a witness at the time said would not have been easily visible for someone driving over it in the stormy conditions.

Miller’s red ute was on Wednesday seen embedded in mud and silt with its bonnet and roof smashed in and the engineer’s work equipment strewn around the now-drained riverbed.

Miller — believed to have been in his 40s — was living just over the eastern side of the Kikowhero stream. His father lives five minutes down the road.

On the collapsed Omapere Rd bridge that was today being repaired by large diggers and trucks, a small memorial for Miller has been erected.

A wooden cross with “Brendan RIP” and the date on which he died “14/2/23″ hand-written on it was propped up among two jars of flowers and a bottle of Tui beer. Photo / George Heard

A wooden cross with “Brendan RIP” and the date on which he died “14/2/23″ hand-written on it was propped up among two jars of flowers and a bottle of Tui beer. Photo / George Heard

A wooden cross with “Brendan RIP” and the date on which he died “14/2/23″ hand-written on it was propped up among two jars of flowers and a bottle of Tui beer.

The exact circumstances around Miller’s death are not yet known.

However, the manager of a nearby vineyard who knew Miller provided an account of the morning of February 14 in which he first came across the collapsed bridge as the floodwaters raged.

The vineyard manager said he came across the bridge around 6.15am and saw one end had collapsed.

The bridge eventually collapsed more and had floodwaters flowing over it. But at this point in the morning the vineyard owner said the bridge was “less bad, but more dangerous”.

“I stayed there to stop any traffic coming across and phoned my neighbour to phone the people on the other side to put some cones up or block the road,” he said.

“But also I phoned Brendan, because he lived very close to the bridge on the other side. So I phoned him to come and block the bridge, but it went straight to answerphone.

The Kikowhero Stream in Crownthorpe, Hastings, in flood over a bridge on the Omapere Rd after the cyclone struck Hawke's Bay.

The Kikowhero Stream in Crownthorpe, Hastings, in flood over a bridge on the Omapere Rd after the cyclone struck Hawke's Bay.

The vineyard manager has phone records for calling Brendan at 6.28am and at 6.57am.

“So I was stuck at the bridge, I couldn’t go anywhere so I waited until someone on the other side of the river came ... I couldn’t leave because I didn’t want someone driving into the hole,” he said.

The manager said Miller must have driven over the bridge before 6am because after then: “It was coned and blocked off — so there’s no way he would have done it. "

After 8am that morning, the vineyard manager went to a higher elevation further along the Kikowhero stream to take photos of the flooding.

He has taken photos of the location where Miller’s work truck ended up, but it is at that point in the day it was submerged by floodwaters and could not be seen.

By 3.30pm he took another photo of the same spot and Miller’s work truck can be seen in the same spot it remains now.

It was at around this time that the authorities were notified about Miller’s welfare.

“If you got washed downstream ... this poor guy. Even if he did make the swim, there’s so many fences, so many trees, because it goes into the Ngaruroro River ... You wouldn’t survive that,” he said.

The Kikowhero Stream in Crownthorpe, Hastings, after the cyclone struck Hawke's Bay. Photo / Supplied

Brendan Miller died after his truck was swept off an Omapere River bridge. His ute was located about 1km down steam. Photo / George Heard

The Kikowhero Stream in Crownthorpe, Hastings, after the cyclone struck Hawke's Bay. Photo / Supplied

The Kikowhero Stream in Crownthorpe, Hastings, after the cyclone struck Hawke's Bay. Photo / Supplied

Omapere Rd resident Trudy Connor, was among several neighbours the Herald spoke to for whom Miller had done work for.

“It’s just awful,” she said.

“He was an engineer, he did a lot of work for us on the farm. He was a very generous guy. He has a wee boy. Just a good guy, always keen to help out. Really clever engineer, very clever guy.”

Miller’s funeral is this Saturday.

Police confirmed the death of someone in Crownthorpe — a suburb of Hastings — on February 19 “in circumstances related to Cyclone Gabrielle”. Police said the death was only reported the previous day.

This is however several days after authorities were notified of Miller’s possible disappearance on February 14.

Of the 11 confirmed deaths from Cyclone Gabrielle, Miller is only one of a handful remaining who have not been identified. There are around 10 people for whom police have “grave concerns”.

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