14 Apr 2024

Questions remain over Bay of Islands ferry crash one year on

4:09 pm on 14 April 2024
Passengers on the stricken Waitere are helped onto another ferry on 13 April 2023. The damaged vessel sank about an hour later.

Passengers on the stricken Waitere were helped onto another ferry on 13 April, 2023. Photo: Supplied

Saturday marked one year since a ferry crash in the Bay of Islands left one beloved skipper in critical condition and a tightknit Far North community in shock.

On 13 April last year, Bill Elliot was manning the 79-year-old Waitere, also known as the Blue Ferry, between Paihia and Russell - a short journey which he had done for several years before.

Witnesses described how a motorboat crashed into the side of the ferry at "full throttle", causing major damage to its port side.

Bill suffered life-threatening head and spinal injuries, and at least one passenger was thrown into the water.

He was taken to shore by a passing parasailing boat and later airlifted to Middlemore Hospital in a critical condition.

Locals in the community described Bill as a known boatie around town, and his ferry, which sunk soon after the crash, was familiar to the locals.

Those on board the ferry said it was remarkable no one else was injured, given the force of the impact and the fact the Waitere was crowded with school holiday visitors at the time.

Bill and his wife, Lois Elliot, had run the business since 1999. She told Checkpoint her husband had never been involved in a boating accident before.

The Elliot family has since told RNZ they preferred to remain private and did not want to comment on the status of Bill and the family.

Similarly, locals said they would rather not comment on the topic out of respect for the family's wishes.

In February, James Petrie Thomson, a boatie from Auckland pleaded guilty to charges of dangerously operating a vessel in relation to the crash.

He was remanded at large and will be sentenced in June.

The charges are laid under the collision prevention rules of the Maritime Transport Act 1994 and carry a maximum penalty of 12 months' jail or a $10,000 fine.

The prosecutor for Maritime New Zealand indicated to Judge Simon Lance the Crown entity would only be seeking the fine as a penalty.

Meanwhile, the Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) is continuing its investigation of the ferry crash.

Spokesperson Simon Pleasants said a draft report was due to be presented to the commissioners in about two weeks' time.

If they approved the draft report, and did not require further investigation, it would then go to the people named in the report for consultation, as part of the natural justice process.

If all went to plan, Pleasants expected the final report would be published towards the end of the year.

Unlike the separate investigation by Maritime New Zealand, TAIC's report will not seek to lay blame for the crash, but it will examine how a repeat can be avoided in future.

Typically, investigations by TAIC - which are reserved for the most serious accidents or those involving planes, trains and ships - take 18 months to complete.

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