Found Tolaga Bay boy’s amazing 21 hour-survival in rugged East Coast terrain

The dog owner who last saw 3-year-old Axle playing with his pet has recounted the heart-stopping moment he realised the boy had vanished into rugged East Coast bush.

Damon Jeffery said he didn’t sleep a wink last night, fearing the worst and determined, like so many in the Tolaga Bay community, not to stop looking for little Axle until they found him.

Jeffery had been the last person to see and hear the little boy who had been playing with his white dog Bro while he worked inside his bus.

“Then all of a sudden they were gone,” he said.

Since 1pm yesterday, Jeffery has been searching high and low for the youngster – desperately trying to retrace the preschooler’s steps.

“I went everywhere. I looked – honestly – I looked. The chopper looked, the police did. It was unreal how far out he was.”

To everyone’s relief the lost child was spotted by a Tolaga Bay resident on a hill face in rough terrain about 4km from his home at 10.45am.

Gisborne man Gareth Hailey, who was fencing in Ruatōria and helped with the search this morning, said a group of about five people had been searching for the boy in the thick bush when one of the men heard a voice.

“He heard a kid’s voice so shot up and saw him jump out of the bush basically.”

Axlel then started asking the rescuer for his mum.

“He was just wanting him mum. All he was asking for was his mum.”

He was then driven home in a ute and was sitting in the passenger seat on a woman’s – understood to be a family member’s – lap.

Hailey said the search and rescue organisers had just been about to send volunteers up the track road to start combing through the dense bush when word got out that the boy had been located.

“Everyone was pretty elated, pretty relieved.”

Hailey said he was one of many volunteers who had decided to help with the search as he had been unable to sleep last night out of concern for the little boy. He joined friends from Gisborne who had stopped working early on Tuesday afternoon to help with the search.

An emotional Jeffery said he had to wipe away tears when he saw the 3-year-old walk down the driveway and be reunited with his parents just before 11am today.

Axle’s mum clung to her son after being beside herself with worry.

Utter relief could almost be felt in the air as more than 100 volunteers cheered and clapped as they watched, with tears streaming down many of their faces, Axle being returned to his parents safe and well.

“I can’t even imagine the relief that his parents are feeling right now. Just the look on their faces when they seen him turn up. It’s an unreal moment. I had a tear myself.

“If he hadn’t fallen, I would have thought hypothermia would have caused some damage. But he’s happy, he’s healthy, he’s smiling. He’s having some food and everyone is just so relieved.”

Axle’s dad told Jeffery the relief he was experiencing was incredible, saying he felt 100 per cent better.

The boy’s speech is still limited so what he did for the 21 hours while he was missing – including in the blanket of darkness – remains a mystery.

Axle had been climbing up a steep and remote hill face in a neglected logging area at the back of Paroa when he was discovered walking on the face of a hill by one of the scores of residents looking for him.

The Tolaga Bay man scooped him up and brought him back to his parents.

It was part of a major search involving local volunteers, police, helicopters and drones which had been underway since the 3-year-old disappeared from the Paroa Rd property with a small dog in tow just before 1pm yesterday.

Just prior to Axle being found, Jeffery and another man had driven along the track looking along the steep terrain and calling out his name.

He said the area was rugged and at one point he even feared he might fall to his death as parts of the earth below him gave way while they hunted for the boy.

Jeffery returned back to the property to be interviewed by police just in time to see the boy being reunited with his family.

He was in utter disbelief at the distance Axle travelled in the steep terrain, saying he would have walked onto the paddock in front of the property before being found some 4km away along the gravel track.

“I can’t believe how far out he made it and I can’t believe that’s he back completely fine.”

Axle’s parents had been largely based at the property helping police with information and waiting anxiously in case he returned home.

Jeffery said no one slept last night as they feared for the little boy’s safety.

“We didn’t stop. We just kept looking and looking. You have to have a lot in you to stop looking for a 3-year-old that is missing.”

The community rallied together to bring the little boy home, he said.

Axle’s family had only moved to the area a month ago and had also been caring for a newborn.

“The parents are forever grateful for everybody involved and everybody who sent their prayers and stuff like that.”

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