The sister and aunty of the missing Marokopa family has said she is “thankful beyond belief” that the family safely returned home nearly three weeks after their disappearance.
Thomas Phillips and his three children – Jayda Jin, 8, Maverick, 6, and Ember, 5, who had not been seen since September 11 – returned to a family farm on Thursday morning.
Philips’ sister Rozzi Pethybridge took to Facebook on Thursday night to express her joy.
“Thankful beyond belief they are home safe,” she said in a Facebook post.
Pethybridge said it was the “best outcome after a long and harrowing ordeal”.
“Glad you returned bro and I knew you would take care of your wee preciouses [sic],” she wrote.
Pethybridge also gave a heartfelt thanks to those who were involved in the search including police, local iwi and LandSar.
Police and emergency services – as well as hundreds of locals and volunteers – spent days searching for the family in the area of Kiritehere and Marokopa.
Police suspended the search for the missing family last week, 12 days after they were last spotted.
“My heart feels bruised and weakened but is on the mend,” she wrote.
Pethybridge also shared a song titled Hey Brother by Swedish DJ Avicci.
Waitomo district mayor John Robertson said the community had gone through “a whole series of emotions” over the past three weeks.
At first, despite real concerns, people believed the four would be found. Phillips was a bushman who knew that environment well so the community believed he had probably gone into the bush and was caring for the children well.
“But then you went from that sort of emotion to some anxiety as time went on – frustration as the search wasn’t yielding any results, and then I guess the grief as the search then turned to focus on the ocean and the feeling was that there’s a reasonable chance that they’ve been lost at sea.”
That grief had turned to elation yesterday with a sense of relief and joy among locals.
“When you think all that happened over a two-and-a-half-week period, the community were all over the moon. They’re just delighted to see Thomas and the three children surviving this.”
He thanked everyone who had been involved, from search and rescue to police and people who came from all over the region to look for the family.
Marokopa is a small, close community. The Phillips had been farming there for some time which added to the emotions people felt when they disappeared.
He didn’t know the details of what had happened in the intervening days as police were still working through their investigation.
A member of the public contacted police after sighting a man and three children on a bike early on Wednesday morning.
Police deployed a fixed-wing plane and drones to the area but the family were not found straight away.
All huts and bush areas were searched – but to no avail. After these extensive searches, Phillips and the three children turned up at the farm.
Police spent Thursday speaking with Philips to establish all the facts about what had occurred.
Inspector Will Loughrin, Waikato West Area Commander, said the family had “experienced 17 days of hell”.
“To happen this way, is fantastic for the family. This is a family that experienced 17 days of hell, really.”
Family members, including the three children’s grandparents, were still processing what happened and trying to support one another, Loughrin said.
However they were “ecstatic” that the family has returned.
“We always held out hope that we’d be able to bring the family home alive.”
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