Police officer Dean Oswald is your typical humble Kiwi. After saving two children and a man from drowning in Ohiwa Harbour near Ohope, the police officer didn't breathe a word about his heroics. His children only found out about their dad's actions when they read about the rescue in the local paper.
His wife, Michelle, discovered her husband was a hero when she overheard police brass ringing Dean to praise his efforts. Dean has always been a hero in his children's eyes, but now Hollie (17), Connor (15) and Jack (11) are glad others have hailed him a hero for the dramatic sea rescue in the Bay of Plenty during the holidays.
The drama unfolded when two 11-year-olds got caught in a rip in the harbour. A 31-year-old uncle in their group went to their rescue but also got into difficulty. Emergency services were called but Dean, on duty at Ohope, was first on the scene. With his background in surf lifesaving, he didn't think twice about going to save them.
The trio had been in the water for nearly 40 minutes and the adult was losing consciousness. Fortunately, two family friends waded in behind Dean, bringing along two children's life jackets to help. "If they hadn't turned up, there could have been quite a different result," says Dean.
The pair reached one of the boys and Dean reached the other. The pair then swam the boys to shore while Dean went further out to the man, who was close to going under. "He was lying face up but still breathing. Waves were washing straight over the top of him. He was unresponsive because he'd used so much energy up trying to save the kids," says Dean, who has a natural instinct for helping others.
"I didn't think about anything except trying to save those kids. You couldn't just stand on the beach – I would have to have a go at it, even if I wasn't a good swimmer. Even the uncle was just following his instincts."
Tragically, another New Zealander died in Melbourne two weeks ago trying to save his daughter and nephew in a lake. Kelekolio Latu from Auckland drowned as he tried to reach their dinghy, which had become tangled in weeds.
"It just shows how strong the survival instinct is," says Dean. "He probably wasn't a confident swimmer but he still risked his life to try and save his family. He paid the ultimate price."
Dean has praised one of the boys he helped rescue for raising his arm in the sea to indicate they were in distress. "I've got to give him credit for having his hand up after being in the water for so long," he says.
Connor says the swimmers were lucky it was their dad, who is experienced in big surf, who went to their rescue. "If Dad wasn't there I don't know if they would all still be alive," he says. "It's pretty cool," adds Jack.
The day after pulling the 31-year-old man to safety, Dean’s bravery was recognised when the district commander rang him to praise his efforts. Dean believes being humble is a common Kiwi trait and points to his own hero, All Black captain Richie McCaw, who has kept a cool head after the Rugby World Cup win.
"He's so humble and reserved about it. Maybe we don't reward ourselves enough. That guy to me is like ‘The Man’. He's a legend," says Dean, a former rugby player.
His own background in surf lifesaving means he knows the importance of teaching children how to swim. All his children were taught to swim from an early age, how to recognise rips and how to survive them. But Dean points out it's hard to follow the advice not to swim against a rip when you’re being dragged out to sea.
"You've got to let it drag you out until it loses its power, then swim at a diagonal direction back to shore, but that's really hard even for experienced lifeguards," he explains.
He also advises against swimming if a beach looks deserted and there's big surf. "Swim between the flags. Ask locals what the conditions are. A big sea is always an indication of undercurrents or rips," he says. "It’s easy to forget how dangerous the sea can be."