4 Nov 2014

Road closed behind doomed Canadians

8:09 pm on 4 November 2014

An inquest into the deaths of a Canadian couple whose campervan was swept off the road has been told the pair drove into the Haast Pass as warning signs were being put up behind them.

Part of the couple's vehicle found in the Haast River.

Part of the couple's vehicle found in the Haast River. Photo: TV3

Connor Hayes, 25, and Joanna Lam, 24, were driving from Haast to Wanaka on 10 September last year when a landslide swept their rental vehicle off State Highway 6 and into the Haast River.

After an extensive search Ms Lam's body was found washed up on Haast beach but, despite efforts by police and the local community, Mr Hayes' body has never been found.

An inquest was held in February this year regarding the landslide and events of the accident, and the coronial inquest at Greymouth District Court today is examining the circumstances of the crash.

Senior Constable Robin Manera described what the police know of the couple's final movements, saying they were last seen eating dinner at a restaurant in Haast at 5.35pm, on their way to Wanaka in deteriorating weather.

They made it as far as Pipson Creek but were blocked by a slip so turned back. However, they found another slip behind them.

A map of the area provided to the inquest.

A map of the area provided to the inquest, showing the location of the slips. Photo: RNZ / Patrick Phelps

"These two slips were about 800 metres apart....they then drove back to Pipson Creek and stopped, possibly got out to clear a way through, or have been sitting in their camper van, when a slip has ... swept them into the river"

The police did not know the two were missing until almost a week later, when Joanna Lam did not turn up for her new job on 16 September.

Call to close road

Communication delays in the remote spot had allowed traffic - including the couple - into the pass for 90 minutes after the decision was made to close State Highway 6.

In heavy rain and severe gales, Ferguson Brothers roading foreman in the Haast Pass William Caird decided to close the highway.

But, as Coroner David Crerar was told today, it took almost 90 minutes until that actually happened.

"Having no means of immediate communication resulted in a fifteen to thirty minute delay in the road being closed as the contractor then had to move into an area - Burke Flat - with satellite phone reception," New Zealand Transport Agency consultant and civil engineer Edward Guy said.

"Once this communication was made, there were further delays having the road closed with signage and lighting."

Better communications would have reduced delays in closing the road, he said.

Senior Constable Simon Burbery told the inquest the foreman called roading contractor Opus to suggest the highway be closed.

Senior Constable Simon Burbery gives evidence at the inquest into the deaths of a Canadian couple.

Senior Constable Simon Burbery giving evidence at the inquest. Photo: RNZ / Patrick Phelps

Mr Burbery said Opus called a local mechanic set up flashing road closed signs while the couple were already driving south towards the pass, with no knowledge of the danger.

Mr Burbery recommended the use of a remote warning system to alert drivers to hazards and brochures for overseas drivers unfamiliar with New Zealand roads.

"It may not be technically possible but it would be advisable to explore the possibility of having some form of remotely controlled signage installed at locations within the Pass to effectively warn those motorists already inside the pass to turn back," he said.

Coroner Crerar said signs could be ignored, and some sort of lockable barrier might be better.

However, New Zealand Transport Agency spokesperson Peter Connors said even barriers could not guarantee safety.

"That doesn't preclude people going around barriers. About the only way we make it bullet proof is manning road closures," Mr Connors said.

"But even then people choose to ignore them, our guys out there aren't policemen."

Coroner Crerar has adjourned the inquest, with his findings to be released at a later date.

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