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Wellington cop hailed for swimming dark river 18 times in 'life-saving' rescue

A Wellington police officer helped save the lives of five children and teenagers by swimming back and forth across a river in the dark 18 times.

Constable Rochelle Andrews helped rescue a group of six people, including children, from the Hutt River overnight. Source: istock.com

Constable Rochelle Andrews was working with Search and Rescue (SAR) Wellington during the incredible rescue at Hutt River in December.

The group of five children, aged between 11 and 16 years old, and one adult, were reported missing after they didn't arrive to meet relatives at a swimming hole in Kaitoke Regional Park.

It was only a short distance from their campsite and they were only wearing togs at the time.

They were found several hours later by the LifeFlight Westpac Trust Helicopter, huddled on a ledge in the Hutt Gorge with nowhere to move.

Ms Andrews was paired with dog handler Constable Dan Turner and his dog Kong for the rescue.

In an article published by police today, she said the group couldn't be winched out without getting in the water and putting themselves at further risk.

"When we reached the site it was clear the group were trapped by the river, which was approximately nine metres across with steep high bluffs either side," Ms Andrews says.

“The group were showing signs of early hypothermia, especially the youngest – they were still dressed in just their swimming togs with the air temperature dropping fast."

Rescuers tried calling to them, but the river was too loud and they were too far away.

So Ms Andrews decided to leap into the river herself, armed with a dry-bag, warm clothing and some survival blankets.

Constable Rochelle Andrews during the rescue, along with dog handler Constable Dan Turner and his dog Kong. Source: Supplied

When it was decided it was better to swim them back now than leave them until morning, Ms Andrew then swam back and forth 18 times in total to bring them back to safety.

"The kids were scared to get back in the water but they were really brave," she says.

"They had been on the ledge for about nine hours and were freezing. One saw an eel nibble my leg and got a bit freaked out by that too."

After bringing everyone back safely through the dark, cold river, Ms Andrews was finally finished and able to change back into dry clothes.

The family were then safely airlifted by an RNZAF helicopter, with night flying ability and staff equipped with night vision goggles.

They got back to the campground and were reunited with their relatives as the sun rose.

In a police article today, Wellington SAR coordinator Sergeant Ants Harmer praised Ms Andrews' impressive efforts.

"All this effort was achieved during the hours of darkness and in a river gorge that provided an inhospitable rescue site," he says.

"Rochelle, supported by the team, saved six lives that night and that’s something to celebrate."

Ms Andrews says she's a "confident but not brilliant" swimmer but has done specialised training since joining the police.