An angry surf crashed on the black sand of Kiritehere Beach as distant points of hi-vis bobbed along the beach, marking searchers among the dunes.
Drones and later a helicopter buzzed in the grey skey overhead, but the Waikato west coast beach held its mystery tight into a fourth day.
Thomas Phillips, 34, and his children Jayda Jin, 8, Maverick Callum-Phillips, 6, and Ember Phillips, 5, are believed to have gone missing on the weekend at the remote coastal spot west of Te Kūiti.
Police say they have serious concerns for the safety of the missing family after Phillip’s vehicle was found on the beach on Saturday, moved out of the advancing tide on Sunday and carted away by police on Monday as worried family raised the alarm.
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The search and rescue operation was in full swing by Tuesday at Kiritehere; at nearby Marakopa, the usually quiet settlement that might boast a hundred residents in summer was humming with activity.
Police, Search and Rescue volunteers and Fire and Emergency staff searched the swell-tossed coast and went door to door on foot, while drones and the Auckland-based Eagle helicopter joined the hunt.
Waikato West area commander Inspector Will Loughrin confirmed at a press conference in Te Awamutu that Phillips and the three children lived together on the family’s farm in Marokopa, although he also lived in another house in Ōtorohonga.
However, he could not reveal the reason why Phillips was at the beach that day, or whether there were any items of interest found at the scene.
“We’ve obviously got concerns. This is out of character for the family … and this is day four. That’s why you will see a significant amount of police resources being put into this operation, to bring Thomas and the kids home.”
The family were “really well known” in the area, he said.
“A family member last spoke to Thomas on the family farm in Marokopa, and that was on Saturday evening. There was no issue raised at the time.
“[The] family didn’t realise Thomas and the kids were missing until the vehicle was discovered on Sunday, on the beach, and at that point the family became concerned and approached police on Monday morning … From that point on police immediately launched a search and rescue operation.
“Our initial inquiries identified that Thomas and the kids were at the family farm in Marokopa, and that’s part of the inquiries we are making at the moment, to establish what was said, what the intentions of Thomas were, in terms of his movements, later in that day and in the coming days.”
Loughrin was not able to confirm whether there was a shared custody arrangement in place for the care of the children or if any proceedings involving him were under way in the Family Court.
The family were “naturally, really upset”.
When the car was found on the beach, waves were “crashing into it … Waves were crashing over the bonnet of the vehicle.”
Kiritehere resident Nora Haupokia was born and raised in the small neighbourhood and lives a few hundred metres from where Phillips’ vehicle was found.
She doesn’t know Phillips well, but a lot of the people who went to school with him are searching and waiting.
“It was really hectic here on Monday, so I put on a meal for all those who helped.
“It’s very emotional when there are children involved.”
“We don’t know where they went or what happened. No-one knows what time he came over here or what they were doing.”
Haupokia, 70, told Stuff she didn’t hear or see anything the day the family went missing.
“We’ve been told if they can’t find anything on land, then they will look out at sea,” she said.
Her nephew was whitebaiting on Saturday when he found the truck about 500 metres from the beach access.
“I was away at the time, but it was stuck in the sand because the tide was up, and by Sunday afternoon they found the keys and got it out and put it up on the bank behind my place.”
The vehicle was removed by police about 8pm on Monday.
Haupokia said she had only witnessed something like the missing person case once before in the remote community.
A rāhui will be put in place until the family is found, she said.
A woman who lives near Phillips in Ōtorohanga said she last saw him and the children at home about 9am on Saturday.
The woman, who did not want to give her name, didn’t know Phillips well but said his children were always playing outside.
“They were a happy family – [you] could hear them laughing and could see him outside watching them.”
The police had talked to the neighbours on Monday, she said.
Phillips’ house was empty on Tuesday, with children’s bikes lying in the front yard and toys in the backyard.
Waitomo District mayor John Robertson was hoping for a safe recovery of the group but said they could be in a remote area.
“It’s a tough environment, with the sea and stormy weather.” .”
Ōtorohanga mayor Max Baxter found out about the missing man and children on Monday morning.
“Like any search and rescue we like to remain positive, but it has been a long time since Saturday and as each hour passes it’s concerning. We have our fingers crossed for a good outcome.”
Police suspended the ground-based search on Tuesday night, just after 10pm.
However, Fire and Emergency drones and thermal imaging would still be used overnight.
It is expected both the ground and air searches would resume at 7am on Wednesday.
Air support would continue from the Auckland-based police eagle helicopter and a coastguard fixed-wing plane, police said.
Anyone with information is asked to contact 105 and quote job number 210913/1952.