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From 'perfect' day to tragedy: Family who lost 10yo in freak accident speak of grief

Melissa Nightingale,
Publish Date
Sat, 2 Mar 2024, 9:14AM

From 'perfect' day to tragedy: Family who lost 10yo in freak accident speak of grief

Melissa Nightingale,
Publish Date
Sat, 2 Mar 2024, 9:14AM

First steps. First lost tooth. First time riding a bike. First day of school. First flight home without her. First time setting the table and leaving her place empty. First time seeing her body and stroking her beautiful face. 

Tegan Ariel Chen’s 10 years on Earth were a whirlwind of firsts. Now her family must navigate a new set of firsts without her. 

For dad Adrian Chen, one of those firsts was coming up the lift to his parents’ home. Tegan would always be waiting there for him when the doors opened, pulling a funny pose. This time, the emptiness and silence of the space when the doors opened was potent. 

Tegan Chen died after being swept down Marian Creek in Fiordland National Park on January 25.Tegan Chen died after being swept down Marian Creek in Fiordland National Park on January 25. 

‘Feet first’: The desperate race to save Tegan 

It has been a little over a month since Tegan lost her life in the rapids of Marian Creek in Fiordland National Park. 

Speaking from their home in New South Wales, Tegan’s parents are smiles and tears, leaning into their pain, embracing the memories of their daughter, and drawing strength from their faith in God. 

Mum Deb Fung said it was as if God had created a “perfect day” for the family the day before Tegan’s death. They were on holiday in New Zealand and had booked a Milford Sound cruise. Fung remembers praying for a sighting of dolphins, and Tegan’s delight when a pod appeared and swam near the boat for a good 15 minutes. 

“I just felt at the time like God was just giving us such a perfect time, why gift wrap it so beautifully?” 

The next day they nearly didn’t go to Marian Creek. They drove past it but decided they would make the effort, and turned back. 

Fung went ahead on the track with the kids - Tegan and her two older brothers, Zac and Luke - while Chen hung back with his sister to help their parents. As he caught up, Fung left him with the kids as she went ahead to another viewing gantry. 

“The next thing I knew was Zac came running down saying ‘she’s gone in, she’s gone in.’ Then it all went to chaos,” she said. 

The details of that fateful incident are imprinted on Chen’s memory. 

The spot where Tegan Chen slipped into Marian Creek is not fenced off.The spot where Tegan Chen slipped into Marian Creek is not fenced off. 

The kids were perched on a rock near the water, two of them squatting down. He was several metres away, and saw her lose her balance and fall as she stood back up. 

“I ran towards the edge to see if I could get to her, she was already a bit too far.” 

Chen told Zac to run and tell his mother what had happened, then began racing down the side of the riverbank, trying to reach the edge and find somewhere he could grab a hold of Tegan and pull her out. 

He remembers his last words to her being “Feet first, try to grab a rock or a tree”. The echo of those words struck him at her memorial service when the funeral director instructed him to bring her casket into the room “feet first”. 

During the desperate race down the creek, Chen saw Tegan grab hold of a rock and pull herself onto it. 

“I thought she was going to make it. Then she couldn’t hold on. She lost her grip and fell. 

“After the gantry, I was bush-bashing through and staying as close to the edge as I could ... As it zig-zagged around there were a few opportunities where I thought maybe I could jump and try and catch her, but it was too high, it was too fast.” 

Soon after, Chen lost sight of Tegan and ran into a group of hikers, asking them to go on ahead to look for her while he stayed close to the creek side. 

Tegan Chen (centre) with mum Deb Fung, dad Adrian Chen and her two brothers in Milford Sound.Tegan Chen (centre) with mum Deb Fung, dad Adrian Chen and her two brothers in Milford Sound. 

When he caught up to the group, they were balancing on some logs. They had caught Tegan and laid her on the log, performing CPR. A helicopter arrived within about 20 minutes, but the doctor had to be winched in further downstream and scramble his way up to the group before taking over CPR. 

“I somehow found a way across the tree and then was just sort of waiting as the doctor just worked on her.” 

“He told me she had passed ... I just remember the four guys, one in particular who was just giving me a hug and holding me.” 

Chen remembers, as he sat there with Tegan’s body, realising he had lost his phone, and mourning the loss of the photos and videos he had taken of her in the last few days. 

“As a father, I really felt that protective responsibility. When she was first passed I just couldn’t stop saying sorry to her. When I was with her body, I saw every hit and every bump and all of that, that she had to endure, and was helpless, couldn’t do anything about it, which made it worse.” 

He has had to come to terms with the knowledge he couldn’t have done anything more for her. Throwing himself into the water would have only left the family grieving two members instead of one. 

“This was the chance as well to sort of bring to a close, almost, my responsibility as the dad, to be responsible for her care, and almost hand it over to God, who’s with her in heaven.” 

Tegan Chen strikes a pose with her family at Milford Sound.Tegan Chen strikes a pose with her family at Milford Sound. 

Everyone’s best friend 

There are so many words that spill forth when Fung and Chen describe their daughter. They slip in and out of past and present tense as they build a picture of the girl she is, was. 

“Wow, Tegan. She’s like our feisty, fiery lioness,” Fung said. “My beautiful lioness.” 

A gymnast, daring horse rider, a hopeful young entrepreneur. She wasn’t fearless, but she was brave. She was expressive, always pulling silly expressions and striking poses. Treasured videos shared by family show Tegan performing dances with her loved ones to a crowded room of relatives or friends. Just a glance at her memorial Facebook page shows she seemed to always be dancing. 

Some of her best qualities were her compassion and generosity. Tegan had about 10 friends she was particularly close with, and all of them considered Tegan to be their best friend, Fung said. 

“I think as we look back as well on her life we realise she had a really full life. She lived an amazing life and she had experiences ... she didn’t miss out,” Chen said. “In some ways maybe she was spared from a lot of suffering here.” 

There are countless memories of Tegan crammed into a decade of life. For Fung, riding horses together was a golden memory to look back on. 

“She just wanted to ride bareback and everything, I was like ‘are you serious?’” 

Chen will cherish the memories of his chats with his daughter. 

A young Tegan Chen dances with her brothers, Luke and Zac.A young Tegan Chen dances with her brothers, Luke and Zac. 

“Often when she’s upset I’m the one that talks her through it. I just treasured those moments, just being able to hear the wrestle of her heart and talk it through, and just having those precious moments where she’s just so completely vulnerable and pouring out her fears.” 

There are “breadcrumbs” of her soul left behind, like Tegan’s music. After her death, her parents discovered about 10-15 songs recorded on Tegan’s iPad that she had written herself. 

Some of the lyrics, posted online, feel almost prophetic. 

“It doesn’t matter where you are, as long as you have a friend in your heart. Your love is a piece of me too, so hold me through it, everlasting love.” 

Steps to survival: How a family live with the loss of a child 

Loved ones pray for Tegan Chen's family at a service celebrating her life.Loved ones pray for Tegan Chen's family at a service celebrating her life. 

How does a mother start each day not seeing her daughter’s sparkling eyes? How does a father move on when there’s an empty space in his arms where his child should be? How do brothers continue life as normal when their little sister isn’t running alongside them? 

The loss seems almost insurmountable. But Tegan’s family say they have three important things: God, a village, and an outlet. 

In the early days after the accident, Fung felt there was a “supernatural binding” of her wounds. The pain was overshadowed by “the revelation of [Tegan] and of God”. 

“Those early days of revelation are still unfolding. He’s given us a sense of the eternal perspective, in that, her potential on Earth was what we grieved so much. Why? He’s given us conviction that her potential was even more valuable in heaven.” 

The family have also been enveloped with love. While they were still in New Zealand, friends and neighbours went to their house to clean it and work on the garden. There have been meal trains, home church and so many flowers they ran out of vases. 

When they came home, neighbours rushed out of their houses to hug them. Every prayer, kind word and shared memory has helped. 

Tegan’s parents set up a Facebook group to share memories of her, and treat it as a blog, letting out the deepest thoughts of their hearts to a kind and loving audience. 

Tegan Chen with mum Deb Fung.Tegan Chen with mum Deb Fung. 

They have also connected with another family who lost their teenage son just a couple of weeks before Tegan’s death. The two families are moving through their twin griefs together. 

The day after Tegan’s funeral they held a celebration service, asking people to show up in bright colours. Tegan’s artworks were on display. There were photos and videos and prayer. 

A month on from the day their world changed, they are trying to get back into the everyday. Part of coping included not being afraid of pain, Fung said. 

“The pain of missing her has to be felt.” 

At the end of it all, there is still that memory of Tegan’s last, precious night alive. She was lying on a bench with her brother under a dark Fiordland sky. She was so happy. She was gazing at the stars. 

Melissa Nightingale is a Wellington-based reporter who covers crime, justice and news in the capital. She joined the Herald in 2016 and has worked as a journalist for 10 years. 

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