Whangārei father who pulled son from fatal school caving trip says it should not have happened

From Checkpoint, 5:15 pm on 11 May 2023

A father, who stopped his son going on a fatal school caving expedition because of safety concerns, says the trip should never have gone ahead and someone needs to be held responsible.

Whangārei Boys High student Karnin Ahorangi Petera died on Tuesday in the Abbey caves after a school trop there went ahead despite forecast bad weather.

Fourteen others and two adults managed to escape to safety.

The school and its board are refusing to answer questions about what safety assessments were carried out and who signed off on the expedition.   

It has also been revealed WorkSafe visited the school in March 2023 because a teacher was injured in an incident involving unguarded machinery. 

A directive letter was issued to the school requiring safe operating procedures to be put in place for the machinery. 

WorkSafe said the school committed to make the improvements. 

'It's a total catastrophe ... it was so avoidable,' parent says

Helicopter pilot Scotty Booth's son was supposed to be on the trip too. 

He told us the family filled out a generic permission form to cover off all school excursions back in February. 

But he emailed the school the night before the fatal trip, concerned about heavy rain on the way and afterwards told his son he was not going.

"I looked at the forecast the night before and said well, there's no way my son will be going, we then sent an email to the school just to see if this was still going ahead due to the forecast.

"We had no reply from that email. My son stayed home with me the next day. 

"Unfortunately, at 11 o'clock the next morning, we found off on social media that this trip had gone ahead."

Booth told Checkpoint he believed the death was preventable. 

"It's a total catastrophe ... it was so avoidable. 

"A lot of people in our community are now mourning the loss of a young 15-year-old boy, which we shouldn't be doing that. There's no reason why we should be mourning him."

He said it appeared there was a massive lack of risk assessment on the school's part.

"The parents have received risk assessment forms stating that, in these circumstances, things such as drowning or so forth could happen. 

"So those risk assessments were in place by the school, but whether they'd done one on the day, I don't know, I can't comment on that, but I'm doubting that [because] otherwise we wouldn't be in this position now."

Slips on the road to Abbey Caves after a Whangārei Boys' High School pupil died in them on Tuesday 9 May 2023.

Slips on the road to Abbey Caves after torrential rain on 9 May, 2023. Photo: RNZ / Lucy Xia

However, all the signs were there for the school to make the right decision, he said.

"We have to make this very clear that meteorologists in today's world make things very simple for every person in this country to be able to read it.

"When they've got big red flashing marks on the top of the North Island .. telling you that major flooding could occur, well it's a no-brainer.

"Put it this way, if you were ticking the boxes before you went into the cave, [when] it's quite obvious that we've got a major rainstorm coming, do you think caving is the place to be? 

"Because in one of the previous emails, they decided the week prior to that, that rock climbing was too dangerous because it was raining, so they're going to go caving instead. Well, who's leading this? Who's running the show?"

A spokesperson for the New Zealand outdoor instructors' association told Stuff, to the best of her knowledge, neither of the adults on the trip were members of the group.

"If we had more parents maybe present on this trip, some of them might have gone, hang on a minute, I don't like this, I think we should wait, we should stop," Booth said.

He ranked communication from the school with a zero out of 10, saying they also only found out which specific caves the students were set to take only 24 hours before, despite emailing earlier to ask.

"At the end of the day, communication is a big thing as we know ... we have no way of phoning them after hours either.

He said he did not blame any other parent because they trusted the school to take responsibility as a guardian.

"I made the decision for my son. That's what I did. And I can't expect any other parent to have done the same thing as me because they have businesses to run, they have workplaces to go to, they take their kids to school and drop them off and at the end of the day, the school is their guardian and the school is responsible for their safety while the kids are at school. 

"So, you know, any parent would expect that that [trip] wouldn't have gone ahead under those circumstances."

Booth said he had heard through his son from other students that a day before the accident, another trip to the caves with students had gone ahead, with high water levels.

He was "very angry, very sad" for the whānau, community and the school too, which said had "good reputation up until this time".

"Why wasn't it stopped? Why did the minibus leave the school? I'm assuming they went on a minibus because there was only two senior people. 

"Why did it even leave the school on a day like that? It started raining here at six o'clock in the morning. You don't have to be a helicopter pilot to work out that it's going to flood."

Booth said he would not trust the school to take his son on a trip from here on until there were better protocols in place.

"I'm not one to put my kid in cotton wool, but they've proven a point now that they're incapable of being guardians of these children."

He said he had put an complaint to WorkSafe New Zealand and talked to police too.

"We keep saying this every time we have accidents and incidents with school kids and or just general work safe, but we really need to start learning from this and people really need to start taking ... some responsibility for [their] actions."

Board of Trustees says it is supporting investigation

Vigil for Whangārei BHS student who died in Abbey Caves - vigial at Whangārei Anglican Church on 10/5/23

Vigil at Whangārei Anglican Church on 10 May, 2023, for the student who died. Photo: RNZ / Tom Taylor

In a statement on Thursday afternoon, Whangārei Boys High School (WBHS) Board of Trustees presiding member Andrew Carvell said they extended their condolences to Karnin's whānau.

"Karnin was a treasured and deeply loved son, a brother, a friend to so many, and an inspiration to fellow Year 11 students at Whangārei Boys High School," he said.

"As Trustees and parents, we share the hurt this event has caused. We will continue to support whānau, staff, students and our WBHS community to help with the healing process."

With the help of the Ministry of Education, iwi, and various agencies, the school had a plan in place to monitor the welfare of students and staff, priorisiting those most affected, Carvell said.

"The Board are fully supporting a thorough investigation into this event by the NZ Police and Worksafe NZ.

"As reported yesterday, we are unable to provide any more detail while the investigation is underway."

'Whole neighbourhood is absolutely gutted'

Neighbour of the Abbey Caves, Spencer, has lived in the area for 10 years and frequently been to the caves with his kids.

Nearby residents were feeling particularly shaken by the incident, Spencer said.

"The whole neighbourhood is absolutely gutted. My wife especially is taking it quite hard ... it's just sad. Sad for the family, sad for the school."

He said being is such proximity to the accident is making it especially difficult.

"There was a helicopter that came in, in the evening and flashing lights and everything. I think you feel it harder when you're that close to the action."

Spencer has a son in the same year group and school as Karnin.

There had been strong support from the school for his son and the other students, he said.

"There was lots of discussions within the class with the teachers and in amongst the students. I think the kids are pretty resilient as a whole and they'll get through it."