Northland Emergency Services Wins National Award for Brian Bench Research

Representatives of the Whangārei Police SAR team and teams involved in the rescue of a man from Mount Parihaka.

The professionalism and expertise of seven Northland groups involved in the search for missing Whangārei man, Brian Bench, have been recognized with a national award.

Whangārei Police Search and Rescue Squad (SAR) alongside Skywork Helicopters, Whangārei Fire Brigade, Volunteer Groups Northland LandSAR, Far North LandSAR, Whangārei Coastguard and Ruakākā Surf Life Saving Club earned a Certificate of Achievement – ​​Operational Activity of the annual New Zealand Search and Rescue Awards on Tuesday evening.

The award, presented at Government House in Wellington, is a prestigious nod to the significant contribution made to search and rescue in New Zealand over the past year.

And in Northland, their efforts in the region’s largest search operation in 17 years have returned beloved local Brian Bench to his family so he can be buried.

Coastguard Whangārei was one of Northland's search and rescue groups to receive national recognition for its efforts last July.  Photo / Tania Whyte
Coastguard Whangārei was one of Northland’s search and rescue groups to receive national recognition for its efforts last July. Photo / Tania Whyte

The 72-year-old was found hypothermic and seriously injured in a creek bed just off the Ross track at Mount Parihaka – about 50 meters from the road – on the afternoon of July 11.

Bench went into cardiac arrest shortly after rescuers located him. He died soon after despite the efforts of members of the research team who performed CPR.

More than 120 people from agencies and the public joined in the search in urban, coastal and bush settings, often in extremely difficult terrain.

A Skywork helicopter in Whangārei while searching for Brian Bench.  Photo / Tania Whyte
A Skywork helicopter in Whangārei while searching for Brian Bench. Photo / Tania Whyte

Donna MacCarthy, president of Far North Search and Rescue, said the volunteers, mostly based in Kerikeri, helped search Bench for four days.

Their usual focus was the Far North, but they were sometimes called upon to help out in other districts if a large search party was needed.

“This [the award] is a huge success. It’s great to get the recognition, and it highlights our team’s commitment to this great research.”

When the award was announced, the group had just completed a two-day search in the bush around Waimamaku in southern Hokianga for the body of Gaelene Bright.

Members of the Ruakākā search and rescue team during the search for Brian Bench last July.  Photo / Michael Cunningham
Members of the Ruakākā search and rescue team during the search for Brian Bench last July. Photo / Michael Cunningham

The recognition was the second national award for the group’s contributions to Bench localization after jointly receiving the LandSAR New Zealand Supreme Award with Northland LandSAR last year.

Ben McKernan, search and rescue coordinator for Ruakākā Surf Lifesaving, had no idea that volunteer lifeguards were up for an award for their role in the search.

“We’re not doing it for the prize as such, because it’s always for the community.

“But it’s always appreciated when we get that bit of recognition for the guards involved and the training that we put into it.”

McKernan described the awards as a great opportunity to be in a room full of like-minded people focused on helping their communities.

The search for Bench was one of five calls the Surf Rescue Search and Rescue team responded to last season.

The attorney reached out to members of Northland’s other bands for their reaction to the win.

Richard F. Gandhi