Crash investigator Scott Quate didn’t hesitate to risk his own life to try to save others.
Quate shrugs off the accolade. Death, but not glory, was already on his mind when he, partner Sandy and their baby daughter were crossing Fergusson Bridge, near Cambridge, in August 2017.
He was on bereavement leave – Sandy’s mother had just died and her family were gathering from all over New Zealand for her funeral.
If not for his skill and good luck, Quate’s family might have had another funeral to attend – his. As he drove across the bridge, traffic slowed to a halt and he noticed people looking from the bridge to the riverbank below. Quate pulled over and onlookers told him a ute had gone off the bridge. The vehicle was nowhere to be seen but a woman was floating face up and a man in the water was screaming for help.
While others watched, or worse, took photos and did nothing else, Quate dived into the cold, fast-moving waters of the Waikato River. As he was swept downstream, he grabbed an overhanging branch and was able to reach out for the woman. While they waited for help, Quate clung to the branch and held the woman above the water. The distressed man hung onto the woman and Quate managed to calm him, assuring him that help was coming.
All three were brought out of the water within 10 minutes. Quate and the man survived, but the woman died two days later in hospital.
The off-duty hero says he cannot imagine any of his colleagues doing anything differently.
The 44-year-old crash scene investigator sees death close up too often – his “death phone” rings only when there’s been a road fatality requiring his attention.
Quate experienced death and grief as a young man before joining the police, losing his only sister, Sarah, to cancer 20 years ago. Her memory lives on – for him, mother Gail, father Bob and his two brothers – in the form of Quate’s golden-haired, two-year-old daughter, who carries the name of the aunt she will never meet.
It’s more than a year since that rescue. Was it life-changing?
I don’t think so. I have had a little bit of media attention and my colleagues have shaken my hand, but other than that, I have just carried on. I’ve been a police officer for 19 years and although I have never done anything like that before, we deal with tragedies quite frequently in my job, which includes serious crash investigations as well as my road policing role in Hawke’s Bay. I attend a lot of fatal crashes, and all police officers, up and down the country, attend jobs every day where, potentially, they could come to harm. Whether it’s a violent offender on the loose or a domestic incident, you just get on with the job.
It’s evident from reading accounts of what happened that you could also have died that day. Have you reflected on that?
It never really crossed my mind that I was in any danger and, if I hadn’t been able to swim, I would have tried to help in another way. Obviously, someone died as a result of what happened that day, despite my efforts to get them both out alive. That was my main goal when I was in there, holding on to the woman with one arm and the branch with the other. And I needed to calm the man down until we got out.
Where did you get that degree of confidence or optimism from – is it your innate personality or from your police training?
I’m no thrill-seeker. In fact, I am a private, home-loving guy; we live 30 minutes from town and I don’t mind having no neighbours. But, when something happens, my colleagues and I want to do something about it.
There’s been controversy overseas about senior officers not putting themselves in harm’s way. Do you think all your colleagues, whatever their rank, would act as you did?
We all wear the uniform and we all work under the same guidelines. You don’t go into the police not to help.
Are you from a service-oriented family?
My older brother, Dean, is a schoolteacher and my younger brother, Daniel, recently joined the fire service. Sarah passed away 21 years ago; she was two years younger than me and it was a terrible time for our family. I’ve got a 16-year-old son from a previous marriage. My partner, Sandy, and I have been together for just over five years. She’s got a couple of teenage boys from her previous marriage. And we have Bella. After I met Sandy I had a vasectomy reversal. Bella is the first daughter for both of us, and the first granddaughter in my family. My parents separated a year after Sarah died; it was a very stressful time. Bella is named for my sister – she is Bella Sarah.
How do you switch off from the sometimes tragic work you’re involved in?
Well, I’m not a reader. My brothers are, and I always say to them that if the book they’re reading is as good as they say, someone will make it into a movie and I’ll watch it. My main way of relaxing is hanging out at home, and I am very happy there. I can take Bella for a walk in the paddocks to look at the horses or the cows grazing, and then I might watch TV or lift a few weights. If I come home from a day’s work and say it was boring, my partner is happy because an exciting day for me, using all my training as a crash investigator, is a horrible day for someone else’s family. A boring, mundane day in this house is a good day.
This article was first published in the January 5, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.