Thursday, July 18, 2024

Search over after half a century

​Senior Constable Daniel O’Connell has called time on a near 50-year Police career dedicated to Search and Rescue (SAR).

Dan, who started his Police career in Greymouth in 1971 and transferred to Wellington two years later, retired this month as one of the longest-serving Police SAR squad members.

His fitness as a competitive runner prompted him to join SAR soon after his permanent appointment and he attended hundreds of SAR jobs – a specialist position over and above his regular duties.

“A lot have asked me about doing 50 years, but having got to 49 years, service gave me another bar on the medal for long service and good conduct – and that’s a good run,” he says.

Dan was at high school in Dunedin when a Police recruiting drive caught his attention. He put his name down, left school and went to help on the family farm at Seacliff, then joined the local pest destruction board at Waitati.

“I was working one day when the recruiting sergeant rang home,” he says. “I followed it up and the rest is history.

“To be honest, when the time came to join, I remember thinking I hope I break my leg or something so I didn’t have to join and could continue poisoning and shooting rabbits. However, I didn’t regret the move to Police.”

Dan in cross-country action in 1992. From Police in Sport, by Ray Read.

Dan says he enjoyed his stint in Greymouth – despite the infamous ‘barber’ freezing fog that comes down the Grey River and shrouds the town, and the secondary jobs he took on, such as carting hay and other labouring.

In Wellington he held a variety of positions over the years – including front line, at the Airport and Diplomatic Protection – but none that prevented him pursuing his specialisation in SAR. The city itself was a bit of an eye-opener for a young cop.

“I remember my early days on the beat in Wellington and being in awe of the tall buildings – and then not knowing about Marion and Vivian Street [former red-light zone] and the goings on in that area.”

SAR jobs exposed Dan to both the tragedy and triumph of the discipline.

He says he recently found an old Evening Post cutting referring to a 1977 search which led him to find a six-year-old girl’s body hidden beneath the floor of a school. He had to remain in the crawl space with the girl while a hole was cut in the floor.

He spent extended periods on SAR during the search for Hutt Valley schoolgirl Carla Cardno in 1989; he was the first SAR member at the site of a mail plane crash in the Tararuas in 1997, and had to stay at the steep, exposed and fuel soaked site to complete the recovery of the pilot’s body.

In 2005 he coordinated the rescue of a tramper in atrocious conditions from the top of the Tararua Ranges; led a search for a missing party in the Orongorongo Ranges; and the rescue of a family trapped in floodwaters in the Akatarawa valley.

In 2006 Dan received the Lou Grant Award for his contribution to SAR. At that time he was the Diplomatic Protection Squad (now Protection Services) representative at Parliament. More recently he worked at the Wellington High Court and District Custody Unit (DCU) and District Court before moving to the Criminal Justice Support Unit in early 2020.

Former Sergeant and SAR coordinator Jo Holden says Dan regularly took on-call responsibilities for the squad and very effectively controlled many SAR operations.

He is known for his attention to detail, exemplary fitness, positive attitude, reliability and his respect for SAR volunteers.

“Dan’s developed a skill base that would be hard to match in most Police SAR squads in the country,” she says. “He’s noted for his accuracy with navigation and distance travelled, and his air observer proficiency.

“He’s flown dozens of air observer missions with the Westpac Rescue helicopter, mostly lying down on his stomach, head out the door and looking straight down at the ground or at the sea in conditions that make most people immediately airsick.”

Inspector Geoff Logan, of Response and Operations at Police NAtional headquarters, says Dan has always been happy to share his knowledge and experience with SAR newcomers.

“Dan has kept his fitness up to an exceptionally high standard and with his pace and endurance still gives many younger people a run for their money,” says Geoff.

“If you needed to deploy rapidly to a remote area, it would often be by following a trail of dust left by Dan.”

Away from work, Dan put his fitness to good use. He was well known as a runner, not surprisingly perhaps specialising in cross-country. After his first Police Cross Country race at Trentham Memorial Park on 3 August 1973 Dan went on to win the open men’s grade for the next 20 years. During this time he went on to represent New Zealand in athletics and cross country.

He is still active in hockey in Wellington, says Senior Sergeant Wayne Kelman, who worked with Dan.

“He has volunteered his time as a umpire for at least the past 20 years, later learning to play,” says Wayne. “Dan has played on several occasions for the Wellington Police Hockey team, including one year in Rotorua where he continued to play with a broken big toe.”

Last word from Dan himself, who attended his final SAR callout – to recover the pilot of a crashed microlight at Kaitoke – on 23 November. It was his second SAR job of the day.

“I have enjoyed my time in Police,” he says. “It’s been wonderful.”

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