Missing family: Search expected to ramp up as conditions settle for day 5

By Belinda Feek

As hours turn into days, the family of Thomas Phillips still cling on to hope that he has taken his three children on a camping trip.

But Uncle Paul Phillips knows that as each day ticks over, the chances of finding them along the Marokopa coast alive dwindle.

"It's looking more and more likely that it's not the answer we want," he told the Herald.

Air, ground and water search crews are again gathering at Marokopa, about 90 minutes' drive west of Te Kuiti where, depending on the weather, they will decide how much resource they can pour into day five of the search operation.

Yesterday, abysmal weather grounded the Eagle chopper and Coastguard plane, but LandSar crews once again battled the wind and rain and took to the cliff tops and rocky beaches to find any sign of Thomas and his children, Jayda, 8, Maverick, 6, and Ember, 5.

The Toyota Hilux owned by Thomas Phillips was found on Kiritehere Beach on Sunday. Police are appealing for sightings of it over the weekend. Photo / NZ Police

Slightly calmer surf conditions should allow searchers, including Raglan Surf Lifesaving Club volunteers, to hit the ocean today and search around Kiritehere and Marokopa using IRBs and jet skis.

Paul Phillips said the family was hopeful but anxious and fearful for the safety of their loved ones, especially as Thomas' grey Toyota Hilux was found on the beach, with waves crashing against it.

"Our biggest fear is that a rogue wave swept them out to sea. Because Tom was an extremely resilient person we're hopeful that Tom has taken the children camping.

"That's something that he was more than capable of, yes, he was a very resilient man, a capable hunter and he knew how to look after himself and knew his way round the bush."

The children's mother, and Tom's former partner, was holding out "every hope that my children Jayda, Maverick and Ember are safe".

The spot on Kiritehere Beach where Thomas Phillips' vehicle was found on Sunday. Photo / Belinda Feek

"This is an incredibly difficult time for myself and our wider family.

"We are asking that anyone who might have any information, no matter how small or insignificant they think it might be, to contact police and tell them."

Paul Phillips said Tom was a qualified fencer but since breaking up from his partner he had been a full-time dad the past three or four years.

A keen whitebaiter, an experienced outdoorsman and devoted dad, Tom was in good spirits when he visited his Marokopa family on Saturday.

The entrance to Kiritehere Beach. Photo / Belinda Feek

He home-schooled his children and lives in Otorohanga but would often drive the bush-clad, winding, narrow road to the coast.

Phillips dubbed his nephew a "coaster", when asked where he was from.

Tom was a man who could easily survive in the outdoors; he could hunt food for himself and provide a decent shelter.

It remains unclear when the family arrived at Kiritehere beach, about 5km over the hill from Marokopa, on Sunday.

"We've got no knowledge or idea that Tom would go into hiding.

Paul Phillips, uncle of father of three Thomas Phillips of Otorohanga, says the family are still clinging on to hope that he and his kids are alive. Photo / Belinda Feek

"He had just come out to the beach. We don't know where he stayed. He may have gone bush in the afternoon."

Tom was the type of the guy who "called a spade a spade".

"If he didn't like something he'd let you know.

"Out here you go hunting and duck hunting and that sort of thing. He was a pig hunter and a fencer - he was immaculate in his work."

The family were "understandably very anxious and fearful" for the safety of Tom and his children.

Police have set up their search and rescue headquarters in Marokopa, 5km over the hill from Kiritehere Beach. Photo / Belinda Feek

"It is possible that they were all swept off the beach as the sea was particularly wild over the weekend."

The family thanked all the volunteers involved in the operation, from those searching, to locals providing food for everyone.

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