Questions raised about why students were in caves during weather event, after body found in search for missing student

A fired-up parent is calling for answers after the discovery of a Whangārei student's body who was swept away by floodwaters on a school caving trip. 

The alarm was raised just before 10:30am on Tuesday after the group, including 15 students and two adults from Whangārei Boys' High School, got into trouble in Abbey Caves in Whangārei during severe weather.

In a statement on Wednesday morning, Northland District Commander Supt Tony Hill confirmed searchers working to locate the student found a body late on Tuesday evening.

The search was expected to conclude at about 5pm on Tuesday but specialist equipment brought up from Auckland allowed the search to continue for longer, he said.

"This helped enable searchers to locate a body, which was successfully recovered late yesterday evening," Hill said.

"While formal ID of the body is yet to take place, police are ensuring the family is being offered support and our thoughts remain with them at this tragic time."

In a statement to Newshub, the family said they're deeply grateful for the help and support from search and rescuers - and they wish for their privacy to be respected.

A parent of a year 12 student who attends Whangārei High School sent an email to AM on Wednesday morning, saying those responsible for organising the caving trip need to be "held to account".  

"They had the weather warnings and the weather was horrible before they entered the cave," the email said. "All of us locals know you do not go near these caves in any rain. Anyone at the school including the principal will need to answer some serious questions."

Whangārei Boys' High School will remain open on Wednesday but a Ministry of Education traumatic incident response team will be on hand.

WorkSafe confirmed to Newshub they have opened an investigation into the incident. 

"WorkSafe has been notified of the fatality at Abbey Caves in Whangārei, and extends its sincere condolences to the whānau, school, and wider community affected by this tragedy," a WorkSafe New Zealand spokesperson said. 

"WorkSafe has opened an investigation into the incident, but cannot comment further while the investigation is underway."

Mayor Vince Cocurullo told AM on Wednesday it's a very sombre mood in Whangārei.

"One of the things you have to understand about Whangārei, it is a very close knit community, we have 100,000 people here but there is one degree of separation," Cocurullo said. 

"So most people know someone at boys high or even close to the family and even from the search and rescue team right the way through to the police and also the council staff.

"There are people who know what's happened and they know the people in the family close by. So it is a very sombre situation."

Conditions were brutal in Whangārei on Tuesday with Cocurullo saying it was raining "cats and dogs".

"You've heard the saying it rains and cats and dogs, well, that's basically what it was. It was torrential rain which came down around midday. It was just one of those situations, which was heavy, heavy rain," he said.

"One of the big things is we have signs there posted all the time. We have warnings on the website, so we're always making sure people are aware of the risks. The big thing is this is a public area, it's a public wildlife area. There is public car parking there, public toilets, it's one of those things that we always try to make sure, but look, we will be having a review of that now."

ACT Party leader David Seymour, who is from Whangārei, told AM Early on Wednesday he had been to the cave as a young student and his thoughts are with the boy's family. 

"I really feel for the family of this boy in Abbey Cave. I grew up in Whangārei and got marched through the caves or climbed through the caves a few times as a student," Seymour told host Nicky Styris.

"It can be a bit of a daunting place as a kid and I just can't imagine what it would be like for this family and how they could decide to go in rainy conditions but I guess that's for other people to look at. But my thoughts are with them.

"In some ways, it's a really neat thing to be able to explore a cave and see glow worms and all those sorts of things. I remember as a student it being a bit daunting. It's a pretty challenging sort of caving environment.

"It's not like some tourist ones where you just kind of walk along the floor and it's dark for a while then you come out again. It's real caving, you do have to use all fours to climb down through some of the gaps and so on," Seymour explained. 

Seymour is urging people to take a breath before criticising people involved in organizing the trip.

"I can understand why people will say, 'It's hard to believe how they could go with a rain warning being a cave.' But, having said that, you shouldn't judge people before you know all the circumstances they faced at the time," he said. 

"I'm a bit worried that there'll be a national pile-on today when maybe there were circumstances or factors we don't all understand yet." 

ACT Party leader David Seymour.
ACT Party leader David Seymour. Photo credit: AM

Education Minister Jan Tinetti shared similar thoughts to Seymour, saying it was a day of grieving.

Tinetti told AM she would consider a review of the incident and the hazardous circumstances. 

"There are going to be lots of questions, we've all got them and those answers do need to come forward," she said. 

"I will be talking to my officials today about just that but at the same time being mindful that today is a time of grief.   

National Party leader Christopher Luxon also passed on his condolences to the family, telling AM his "heart goes out" to the family.

"Our hearts and thoughts go out to the family who have lost their loved one. I think about them and the anxiety and the stress that they'll be going through, and just the shock of losing their loved one," Luxon told AM on Wednesday.

"I want them to know that New Zealand cares about them and we are with them at this time, which will be incredibly difficult for them.

"That could be any of us, having sent our kids off on a school trip and that's just a terrible situation to happen."

National Party leader Christopher Luxon.
National Party leader Christopher Luxon. Photo credit: AM

Reporter Perry Wilton told AM the police presence at the scene had reduced "drastically" overnight with just a scene guard remaining.

"When we visited as well last night, there was all manner of emergency vehicles," Wilton said.

"Locals say that body of that missing student was airlifted away from the scene and all the roads leading up to the caves are awash in slips."

Police said some cordons would remain in place around the caves area while officers continue to conduct a routine scene examination.

"We acknowledge this event has been very distressing for the school and wider community, and that there are a number of questions the public will have.

"At the moment, police's focus is on supporting those affected and we remind people to please not make assumptions as to what has occurred."

A traumatic incident team from the Ministry of Education is supporting the school, Hill said.

Givealittle page has been set up to help support the boy's whānau.