A week after search teams gave up on finding a New Zealand family who appeared to vanish into thin air from an isolated coastal community this month, the man and his three young children suddenly reappeared Thursday, leaving police baffled about the “17 days of hell” the family spent in the wilderness.
“Most of us thought we would never see this,” Waitomo District Mayor John Robertson told New Zealand’s Newstalk ZB. “Three weeks is a lot of time for kids to be with him and survive all that,” said Robertson, who had been involved in search efforts for Thomas Phillips and his three young children.
Phillips disappeared from Kiritehere Beach on Sept. 11 along with his three kids: 8-year-old Jayda Jin, 6-year-old Maverick, and 5-year-old Ember. The disappearance almost immediately took on an ominous tone after Phillips’ vehicle was found vacant and parked on the beach, below the tideline and facing out to sea with the keys left under the driver’s mat.
Hundreds of local residents, volunteers, and police officers immediately threw themselves into searching for the family, scouring Kiritehere and their hometown Marokopa for several days with the help of heat-detecting drones, a helicopter, and a fixed-wing plane, among other things.
All the while, speculation swirled that something terrible had happened, with some fearing the kids had been swept out to sea or that Phillips, who was reportedly separated from the kids’ mother, had deliberately driven them into the water.
But on Thursday, nearly a week after search operations were called off, the 34-year-old father “just walked in the door,” his sister Rozzi Pethybridge told Newshub.
“I talked to him for about two minutes and there were lots of tears. I want to be respectful of Tom’s wishes so I can’t say too much at the moment, but Tom was in a helpless place—he chose a safe place to clear his head,” Pethybridge was quoted saying.
Police offered equally vague explanations after the family’s sudden return.
“To happen this way, is fantastic for the family. This is a family that experienced 17 days of hell, really,” Waikato West Area Commander Will Loughrin, told reporters at a Thursday press conference.
“They are safe and well, the kids are happy,” he said, noting that the family had apparently spent the past few weeks camping in a densely wooded area about 10 miles from where the vehicle was located.
“We know from the family and we knew from our search that he was an experienced bushman, and he had the capability to look after himself in the bush area,” Loughrin said.
It remains unclear what the family ate while in the wilderness, and why they disappeared in the first place. Police have not said whether they expect to file any charges in the case.
The children’s mother, Julia Phillips, said the kids were “absolutely fine.”
“We are very relieved and thankful, and we are so grateful to the police,” she said in brief comments to the news site Stuff.
Some of those involved in search efforts were left unsatisfied with the lack of any explanation for the family’s disappearance.
Kiritehere Beach resident Nora Haupokia told RNZ that it was “a blessing” the family was OK but she was left grappling with questions about the whole ordeal.
“It’s actually quite a sore point of this really, as far as we’re concerned. We’ve had to live with this for three weeks and we thought we would have to carry on living with it until now that he’s come out,” she said.