Coroner’s report: Taupō family float trip turned to tragedy on Waikato River

A man who died on the Waikato River near Cherry Island shortly before lockdown may have had a cardiac event, the Coroner has found.

Coroner Michael Robb decided not to open an inquiry into the death of Jason Lee Comer, a 42-year-old hammer hand from Maraetai, Auckland, who died on the Waikato River at Taupō on March 14 of this year.

The notification of his decision, which is dated May 29 this year but has only just been released under the Official Information Act, says that Comer was part of a family group who entered the river in Taupō for a float trip downstream.

The group were not wearing lifejackets and were initially all either sitting on tubes or drifting, while periodically holding on to a flotation device.

“As the group approached Cherry Island, Jason and his cousin Travis Norton handed their flotation device to others in the group. Jason and Travis floated together for five to 10 minutes, they decided to swim over to Cherry Island and it appears that they then became separated,” the decision says.

“Jason may have held on to a fallen tree in the river, increasing his distance between himself and others who continued floating. No concerns were raised at the time but at the end of the floating trip the family group realised that Jason was not with them.”

With Comer nowhere to be seen, a search was undertaken to find him. His cousin was taken back upstream by Taupō Bungy staff to where he had last seen Comer, and there, they saw him under the water, about 100m upstream from the carpark at Cherry Island.

Comer’s body was later recovered by the Police National Dive Squad.

His medical history included atrial fibrillation (irregular heart rate) and during an autopsy the pathologist’s expert advice was that although Comer had died from drowning, it might possibly have been the result of a cardiac event.

Floating 3km down the Waikato River at Taupō from below Control Gates Bridge to Hipapatua Reserve/Reid’s Farm is a popular summer activity, although it is not without risk.

Last summer two groups missed the take-out point at Hipapatua and one group of three was lucky to survive after they were swept over Huka Falls on inflatables.

Lake Taupō harbourmaster Heath Cairns told the Taupō & Tūrangi Weekender last summer that although people enjoy the river float trips, it was not something he would encourage because the water levels of the river can change at any time.

“One minute it [the water level] can be calm, and then the next minute it can drop really quickly and expose hazards.”

He said some people were not used to rivers and that makes them over-confident.

“Fresh water is not as buoyant as sea water, and alcohol can take away people’s awareness. If you miss the exits at Otumuheke [Spa Park] or Hipapatua, then there are limited places to get off the river before Huka Falls.”

He says people need to be aware of the many snag hazards just below the surface if they are on inflatables.

“The little floaties can deflate real quick if punctured by a tree.”

His advice was to always be aware of the river level and the currents.

“Stick together. Do it with your mates. And wear life jackets.”

Senior Constable Barry Shepherd of Taupō Police said people should keep basic safety rules in mind when heading on outdoors adventures, including staying together, planning on where to get into the river and where to get out, taking care on the water and taking any rubbish away with them.

Shepherd said the message was that while floating down the Waikato River was a fun summer activity, it was important not to miss the take-out point because Huka Falls was not far below it.

“And if you don’t know where it [the take-out point is], find out.”

At least seven people have drowned in the Waikato River between Riverside Park and Hipapatua/Reid’s Farm since 2003.

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