Bushwalkers Jessica O’Connor and Dion Reynolds found alive after missing for 19 days in New Zealand national park


They were found about 12.49pm on Wednesday after a search helicopter spotted smoke and saw two people waving at them, Tasman Police Search and Rescue officer Sergeant Malcolm York said.

The pair were picked up by an Air Force NH90 helicopter, and had “excellent equipment” that kept them alive, he said.

Dion Reynolds and Jessica O'Connor at Nelson Airport.

Dion Reynolds and Jessica O’Connor at Nelson Airport.Credit:Braden Fastier/Stuff 

The search had resumed at first light on Wednesday, after bad weather and dangerous conditions hampered the search on Monday and Tuesday.

York said six teams had flown into the search area by the NZ Defence Force.

He said five specialist tracking experts and three search-dog teams had been brought in from around New Zealand.

More than 30 police staff and volunteers worked on the search operation from a number of different locations.

Dion Reynolds with St John after he was found alive with his bushwalking partner Jessica O'Connor.

Dion Reynolds with St John after he was found alive with his bushwalking partner Jessica O’Connor.Credit:Braden Fastier/Stuff  

When they were rescued they were chatty, more than expected given the length of time and lack of food, York said.

St John said they were taken to Nelson Hospital with minor injuries; Reynolds had a strained ankle and O’Connor a strained back from a fall. They walked into the emergency department with blankets over their heads.

A friend greeted Reynolds with a big hug outside the hospital’s doors and a paramedic carried two big red bushwalking packs into the hospital.

O’Connor’s father, Mark O’Connor, told Stuff the family were “absolutely over the moon”.

Dion Reynolds and Jessica O'Connor at Nelson Airport.

Dion Reynolds and Jessica O’Connor at Nelson Airport.Credit:Braden Fastier/Stuff 

He and his wife, Simone, were at search headquarters when they learnt that someone had been found.

“Then they confirmed it was Jess and Dion and then they told us out there so it was just fantastic,” he said. “The search team and the police have done such a fantastic job.”

The couple spoke to their daughter on the phone from her hospital bed.

“It’s Jess,” were her first words, which were greeted with tears from her parents.

When asked if they ever lost hope, Mark O’Connor said it was “getting pretty difficult for a while”.

However, Simone O’Connor said she “never lost hope”.

“I know she’s a very strong woman, very determined.”

Reynolds’ sister, Stephanie-Lee Ludlow, told Stuff she had a short conversation with him on Wednesday. She was unsure how they survived, but said they were “both happy to be out”.

“I’m so thankful to everyone who have helped to rescue Dion and his Jessica.

“As soon as I found out he was missing, I cried … I’d only just started reconnecting with him in the last six months … And I just wanted him and Jessica to be safe and well.”

Reynold’s former boss at Roots Bar in Takaka said it was “incredible” the pair had been found.

“We are buzzing. We just had a shot of rum [at the bar] to celebrate and we had goose bumps. It’s such a buzz … this morning when I woke up I had a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach, because it’s just been a long time. Just never lose hope.”

She said it showed how LandSAR (New Zealand Land Search and Rescue) search teams were “worth every penny”.

“It must be so rewarding for them, such a buzz, when a search ends this way. They have done such an amazing job.”

Reynold’s roommate in Takaka, Simona Barnova, said she had just found out the news.

“It’s just awesome. It was tough [the last few weeks] because we have been trying to find out where they are and thinking of them every day, and it was not pleasant,” she said.

“I can’t wait for the stories they’re going to tell us. We are actually all together [Reynold’s friends] and can’t wait to see him. We are calling as many friends as we can and sending messages with the news.

“I hope they are OK and going to recover soon.”

Heather Turner Behringer, whose daughter was close friends with both O’Connor and Reynolds, and had been helping organise food donations for LandSAR search teams, said she was “too overcome with joy” to speak.

“It’s a miracle,” she said.”I don’t even know details after talking to [O’Connor’s] Mum. Amazing kids. Amazing efforts.”

Turner Behringer said she knew the Anatori coast well.

“Truly, a hell of a place with extreme beauty. To survive it is miraculous.”

LandSAR Golden Bay president Steve Cottle said search teams were “ecstatic”.

“To see the look on Mum and Dad’s face when we got to tell them it was them, found alive, what an amazing thing.”

Heather Simpson, who had been camping with friends of O’Connor and Reynolds at the Anatori camp, was one of the last people to see the pair.

She said the pair stopped at their campsite before heading up the river.

“I asked where they were going and how long for, and they said they were heading up river and had four to six days’ [worth] of food, which they planned to ration and stretch by fasting as long as possible, to spend longer,” she said.

The pair were in “good spirits” and seemed excited to go adventuring together, she said.

“Both [were] young, fit and experienced with good gear and intelligence and skills.”

The pair had both been living and working in the Tasman District before their disappearance, O’Connor as a kayak guide and Reynolds as a chef.

A Givealittle page set up by O’Connor’s brother to raise money and show support for LandSAR’s “incredible volunteers”, had raised $26,685 by Wednesday morning.

Cottle, posted on the Golden Bay Community Board on Tuesday, extending a “huge thank you for all your overwhelming support”.

“We are extremely grateful to Roots Bar Takaka and Meals For Motueka for donating hot food to feed the search teams,” he said.

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