30 Mar 2010

Coroner says canyoning deaths preventable

9:31 pm on 30 March 2010

A coroner has found a series of failures at an outdoor pursuits centre contributed to the death of a group of students and has recommended sweeping changes to the outdoor education industry.

Six students and their teacher from Elim Christian College in Auckland died in the Mangatepopo Gorge during flash flooding on 15 April 2008.

The group was on a school trip at the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuit Centre in Tongariro National Park.

Chris Devonport released his finding into the deaths on Tuesday.

Mr Devonport says complacency and an under-estimation of the risks by the Outdoor Pursuits Centre were factors in the tragedy and the deaths were preventable.

Other contributing factors were the inexperience of the group's instructor, a lack of proper assessment of the dangers in the gorge and a failure to send a rescue team on time, he says.

Among his 29 recommendations is a call for the Government to consider licensing outdoor education operations for people aged under 18.

The coroner cannot apportion blame for the deaths.

Lessons learnt - centre

A centre trustee and former board chairman, Rupert Wilson, says it has already learnt lessons and made changes, and will be following the coroner's recommendations.

Mr Wilson says the centre will be ready to do gorge trips again in six to nine months' time.

Parents speak

John McLean, who lost his son Tony in the canyoning tragedy, says the outdoor industry must learn from the deaths.

Mr McLean says he shed tears when he read the coroner's report on Tuesday, but believed it to be fair and wise. He says it highlights the need for constant diligence when it comes to safety in the outdoors industry.

The father of another student who died, Natasha Bray, says the centre was a trusted institution and he is bewildered about why it allowed the children into the gorge that day.

Andy Bray says it is frustrating the centre failed to put into practice its world class safety policies.

Jennifer Fernandes, whose son Floyd died, told Checkpoint students should not be allowed back in the gorge because there is no guarantee the trip can ever be done safely.