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Sapper John Whitcombe was one of 16 engineers from the New Zealand Army’s 2nd Engineer Regiment sent by the NZDF to help rebuild the collapsed Waiho Bridge

Greymouth lawyer helps rebuild the Waiho Bridge

Lawyer and New Zealand Army Reservist Sapper John Whitcombe was poring over notes for his latest case when the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) callout came to help rebuild the collapsed Waiho Bridge.


Sapper Whitcombe was one of 16 engineers from the New Zealand Army’s 2nd Engineer Regiment sent by the NZDF to South Westland early in April as part of the construction team that rebuilt the Bailey bridge that carries State Highway 6 over the Waiho River just south of the Franz Josef township.

Born and raised in Greymouth, Sapper Whitcombe says he lost no time in responding to the callout. “I was keen to get stuck in as I knew what a devastating impact the loss of the bridge was having on the local economy,” he says.

The 170 m Waiho Bridge was washed away during heavy rain on 26 March, cutting off access between Fox Glacier and Franz Josef and costing the Westland community an estimated $3 million a day in lost tourism income.

Doing something for the community

Growing up on the West Coast, Sapper Whitcombe crossed the bridge countless times to visit his mother’s family at Fox Glacier. “As a family we would go to Fox Glacier during school holidays, so we have driven over the bridge many times over the years,” he says.

His parents, who still live in Greymouth, were understandably thrilled when they learnt he would form part of the NZDF contingent working with the New Zealand Transport Agency, Downer and Fulton Hogan to replace the bridge.

“It was a great opportunity to do something for the community,” Sapper Whitcombe says. “It was also the first time I deployed to the West Coast with the Army so my family were pretty excited.”

Becoming a military engineer

Sapper Whitcombe joined the New Zealand Army as a reservist in 2015 while studying for a law degree at the University of Canterbury. A former head boy of John Paul II High School in Greymouth, he says he had been interested in the military since childhood.

“Joining the Army had always been at the back of my mind and being a reservist sounded like a good way to get the best of both worlds,” says Sapper Whitcombe, who specialises in criminal law.

Although he had no background in engineering, he chose to join the 2nd Engineer Regiment and train as a combat engineer. “Sappers are trained to build bridges, construct and repair infrastructure, and do various military engineering duties. It was what the role encompasses and the opportunity to do that type of work on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations that drew my interest.”

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