A harrowing survival story told by a mother whose toddler was swept away by a raging flood


Ella Collins speaks in a powerful, clear voice, right down to moments that play over and over again in your mind.

“The water was just behind me…and Ivy was lifted off my shoulders and I went under the water. When I got up to see her floating is ready.

It’s a tale of tragedy, but it’s also the story of the Collins family’s miraculous survival after fighting for their lives as violent torrents threatened to drown them all.

That Monday night began calmly, with Ella and Jack Collins’ daughters Ivy, 2, and Imogen, 4, resting safely in their beds at their home near Eskview in Hawke’s Bay, the rain outside. It rained on

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The couple went to bed, but Ella Collins was woken up at 4am by the sound of running water.

She initially thought the faucet had been left running, but then she remembered that there was a forecast for a storm, so she got up to check the roof for leaks.

But to her surprise, she stepped into the cold, ankle-high water.

“And I heard this really big water rushing.”

Ella Collins talks about her family's amazing survival after losing daughter Ivy in a flood.

Ella Collins

Ella Collins talks about her family’s amazing survival after losing daughter Ivy in a flood.

Outside her bedroom she saw the cat’s door open and gushing out like a faucet.

Panicked, she began moving her belongings higher so that they would not be ruined. I never thought the water would be any higher after a minor flood previously damaged the carpet slightly.

She checked on her two daughters, who were still fast asleep, and kept things moving until her husband noticed that the water level was rising at an alarming rate.

Jack Collins told his wife he needed to leave the house, and he thought ahead and put on a wetsuit while his wife bagged the essentials.

“I decided to let the girls sleep until we left so they wouldn’t panic.”

By then, the couple’s two staff dogs were swimming in the water outside, so my husband brought them in and left them on the kitchen counter before going outside to check on the situation.

In the dark, with rain and rising water levels, Jack Collins built a boat with his neighbors on board. The man said he had to leave now, but he had to return for his wife and children.

“Hurry up,” the man shouted back.

Ella Collins said the water level rose 1 meter within 30 minutes. The couple hurriedly took their children out.

Her next memory is especially painful.

The destruction of Esk Valley is vast.

Chris Skelton/Staff

The destruction of Esk Valley is vast.

“Jack came up to the kids and said, ‘Now baby, we gotta go on an adventure,'” she said through tears.

Her husband put Imogen on his shoulder and she put Ivy on her.

By the time they left the front door, the water was up to her chest. The plan was to head to our neighbor’s two-story house.

They were able to safely cross the front of their neighbor’s property before reaching a hedge. To get around it, they had to go deep into the water and cross the driveway.

On the way, however, they heard the sound of something “breaking”, and as they were about to put the girls on their shoulders, a “massive torrent” of water hit them.

In desperation, her husband returned to the hedge he had just come across and lifted Imogen over it, but Collins couldn’t keep up.

She felt water hitting her from behind and Ivy being lifted off her shoulders. The next thing she remembers is that she is in the water. When she surfaced, she saw Ivy floating away from her.

“I lost her,” she said.

In desperation, my husband jumped into the water, but the current was so fast that he had to cling to a tree.

All she could hear were screams, but the sound of raging water drowned out her husband’s words.

Knowing she had to go to Imogen, she climbed the concrete fence.

“I didn’t know what would happen to Jack. I knew I had to stay with Imogen.”

Destruction at Esk Valley in Hawke's Bay after Cyclone Gabriel tore through the area.

Chris Skelton/Staff

Destruction at Esk Valley in Hawke’s Bay after Cyclone Gabriel tore through the area.

She was able to make her way through the hedge to a distraught Imogen covered in scratches from the branches.

She took her back to the house she had passed by earlier, found the front door unlocked, found water on her shoulders, and went inside.

She put Imogen on the floating sofa and took off her frozen daughter’s wet clothes.

Meanwhile, her husband pushed him into the back fence with the current and used it to get inside past the garage.

He immediately told his wife to enter the roof cavity. When he found out that two elderly neighbors were sitting in his seat on the bench above the table outside, he called them over and asked for directions to the manhole.

Luckily the house was being renovated and the cupboard didn’t have a door. Seeing dry sheets and towels in a high cupboard, Jack grabbed them and stuffed them down the manhole.

Ella Collins hovers Imogen in a chair down the corridor and helps him up to the roof.

The couple undressed in the hollow, and all three tried to get warm under the sheets and pink butts.

“It was so, so cold that we crouched down.”

Her husband lay on his back and kicked a hole in the roof, which proved impenetrable.

Soon he urged them to move again as the water continued to rise. He put Imogen on her shoulders and let her through with water at all her doorways.

Still trying to reach the two-story house, he left Imogen with his wife and crossed the drive where he lost Ivy.

Destruction at Esk Valley in Hawke's Bay after Cyclone Gabriel tore through the area.

Chris Skelton/Staff

Destruction at Esk Valley in Hawke’s Bay after Cyclone Gabriel tore through the area.

He implored his neighbors in the two-story house to give him guidelines, saying that his daughter was dead and that if help was not obtained, they and their two elderly neighbors would all die.

However, the neighbor said he was not in a better position himself and could not help, so Jack turned back.

By then the water was hitting the gutter and raging.

Back on the roof was the only option, but it had to be done from the outside and had to be drilled.

An elderly neighbor was now on the roof, and his wife was sitting on a bench at the next table.

The roof was slippery, so Jack climbed a frangipani tree to get a tie to hold up the roof after the storm. He was able to use it to pull his wife Imogen and the woman onto the roof.

“He was running out of energy at that point.”

The roof isn’t strong enough to secure the tie-downs, so Jack breaks the antenna and uses it to pry open the iron where he had been kicking earlier.

Once he managed to lift the iron horn, Jack began tearing the tin with his bare hands “as if it were a piece of newspaper”, slashing himself in the process.

Eventually, with the help of ties, they and the old couple entered the cavern and waited for it.

After making three emergency calls and calling emergency services for help before communication was cut, the group swarmed onto the roof from 5:30 a.m. to noon on Tuesday morning and a helicopter rescued them.

Meanwhile, Imogen calmed down and did not cry. Her parents were proud of her resilience.

The next morning, search and rescue workers reported to the family that they had found Ivy two doors down from their property.

Since then, Ella shared that everyone who met Ivy was amazed at her ability to communicate across ages and her deep empathy and compassion.

“She had a great sense of humor, was very creative and determined to overcome obstacles.”

Marty Sharp/Staff

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Ivy “run through life with a beautiful smile no matter what,” Ella said, doing it all with her mom and sister while her dad worked.

“We weren’t wealthy at all, but we lived rich and loving days.”

Ivy and Imogen were everything to her and her husband, and her loss will forever affect them and many others deeply.

“It seems like an insurmountable mountain right now, but we have each other. Husband Jack, daughter Imogen, baby due in August, family, friends and community. We all have each other.” I have.

But amidst their grief, there is a feeling of gratitude that they survived through the hardships – Ella says Jack is a hero.

“He saved us all.”

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