Search for man's body off City Beach

By Angela Thompson
Updated November 5 2012 - 8:55am, first published March 8 2009 - 11:19pm
A picture of Patrick Koffa taken by a friend on Sunday afternoon.

Patrick Koffa was born into a world that was imploding.His countrymen were at war with one another. There were lots of bullets, lots of starvation.By the time he turned 16 he had spent a decade in a cramped refugee camp where life's essentials came in drips not waves.

  • Slideshow: Police launch large-scale search for missing swimmerYet it was in the endless blue waters off Wollongong, three years into a new life of peace and opportunity, that the Liberian refugee lost his life.Mr Koffa's family and friends will maintain their vigil at Wollongong's City Beach today, day two of a large-scale search operation to find the missing 19-year-old.Mr Koffa disappeared about 8.45pm on Sunday after he and his friends went for an impromptu night swim about 200m from the rocks lining Flagstaff Hill.The group had been at the hill lighthouse taking photos earlier in the day and walked along City Beach after dark.One of the men, Samuel Bernard, said the mood was light and Mr Koffa even helped remove his shirt and coerced him into the water amid the frivolity.However, the jovial vibe turned frantic when several of the men felt a strong rip pulling them out to sea. They fought their way to the shore but heard Mr Koffa still in the water, "screaming" for help, he said.Several of the friends returned to the water but couldn't fight the rip. "The wave was pulling me back. It was so strong - I was drinking it," Mr Bernard said.Another of the men, Jaimie McIntyre, returned to the water alone. He told the Mercury he could hear his friend screaming but couldn't get to him.The experience was "terrifying", he said.Police from Wollongong and Lake Illawarra Local Area Commands began searching the area that night, assisted by NSW Marine Area Command officers, the ambulance helicopter and Volunteer Rescue Coastal Guard.Police said Mr Koffa was not a good swimmer, although friends said he was a reasonable swimmer made less capable because he was panicking. Water Police began searching from 6am yesterday, joined by PolAir and later the Bendigo Bank Aerial Patrol, which swept 131sq km.Throughout, Mr Koffa's distraught mother kept watch with around 20 family and friends from one of the vantage points off Marine Drive. From there she could see the aircraft, SES volunteers, watercraft and divers searching for her second-youngest child's body. It was not the way the family's Australian life was supposed to go. The family escaped Liberia in 1996, fleeing in the night without their father, Mr Koffa's sister, Veronica Chea, said."In the night people started shooting so our mother only took us. We couldn't find him," she said.Their cramped quarters in a refugee camp in neighbouring Ghana had no toilet or bath and food was very scarce."We were so excited to be coming to Australia," she said."We were coming to a better life."The family lived in Wollongong before moving to Fairfield late last year, but Mr Koffa regularly returned to Wollongong to meet up with his old friends - most of them refugees from Somalia and Liberia. They would go to the beach and listen to rap music together.Ms Chea described her brother as quiet and intelligent. He studied computer engineering at TAFE for two years and intended to enrol in further studies this September.He had told his sister he wanted to take what he learnt back to Liberia some day so that he might be part of rebuilding the country.Wollongong Police Rescue Sergeant Emmanuel Verzosa said the water temperature and current would influence where and when Mr Koffa's body would surface. Clear and relatively calm conditions yesterday had aided the search, but some areas were concealed by weed.The search was to resume at 7am today.