27 May 2024

'Help us please': Inquest played pleas for help from Dunedin party-goers

7:25 pm on 27 May 2024
Sophia Crestani died at the Dunedin party.

Sophia Crestani was 19 when she died. Photo: Facebook

An inquest into the death of a student at an overcrowded Dunedin party has heard recordings of distressed party-goers pleading for help, saying someone is going to die.

University of Otago student Sophia Crestani, 19, died during a stairwell pile-up at a flat party, known as The Manor, in October 2019.

The inquest into her death started on Monday morning in Dunedin District Court.

Her mother, Elspeth McMillan, said she could never reconcile the senseless way that her vibrant daughter had died - crushed and suffocated to death in a grotty student flat - and she wanted to see changes to avoid this happening in the future.

The court heard recorded calls with police, including ones involving people screaming and pleading with them to hurry.

"Help us please," voices could be heard saying.

Another party-goer told police the party was overloaded with people falling over each other and getting trapped.

One caller said The Manor had become way too crowded with hundreds of people and someone was stuck.

Flowers placed outside the flat in Dundas Street, Dunedin where 19-year-old Sophia Crestani died during a party on Saturday 5 October.

Flowers placed outside The Manor following Sophia Crestani's death. Photo: RNZ / Simon Rogers

When asked if anyone was injured, the caller said they were worried someone might be.

Counsel assisting the coroner Rebekah Jordan said people started panicking at the overcrowded house party - which the organisers had called 'Maggot Fest'.

It was meant to be The Manor's last hurrah before the house was taken over by the university.

There had been multiple other noise complaints for parties involving hundreds of people at the student flat before that night, she said.

The proctor wrote a letter to the Manor's property owner raising concerns about safety and structural failure ahead of the fatal party.

This afternoon deputy proctor Geoff Burns told the inquest the flatmates had been given more information than usual about the risks, specifically about overcrowding.

Campus Watch and the proctor's office did proactive and preventative work including an initiative for two storey flats to ensure students were aware of the risks, he said.

He confirmed the Manor had come to the attention of the proctor's office after hosting large parties and attracting noise complaints, he said.

Deputy proctor Geoff Burns at the inquest into Sophie Crestani's death in 2019.

Geoff Burns gives his evidence to the inquest. Photo: ODT / Gregor Richardson

Campus Watch staff were standing opposite the party as they did not have the power to enter an address and were often met with a less than friendly response, Burns said.

McMillan asked him why there was a delay in calling the police, which Burns said he could not answer but that Campus Watch could talk directly with police radios from their control room.

The Manor's tenants who organised the party decided to block entry to most of the rooms apart from three, boarding them up for the party with DJs and a chill room in the others, she said.

Crestani and her friends arrived around 9.30pm, moving between the different rooms.

It became more crowded and people began to fall and start to panic, but noise control was having trouble getting into the sole entry, Jordan said.

When Crestani tried to move upstairs for the last time, she got caught up in the mass of 30 people at the bottom of the stairs.

Emergency services were there, but they initially could not get in.

Crestani was carried outside and given CPR, but she could not be revived.

Sophia Crestani's father, Bede Crestani, at his daughter's inquest at Dunedin District Court on 27 May 2024.

Bede Crestani, Sophia Crestani's father, at the inquest into her death. Photo: Otago Daily Times / Gregor Richardson

The coroner would consider the circumstances of her death and what occurred, including why people in the boarded up rooms did not open them when others knocked on them for help, Jordan said.

Crestani's father, Bede Crestani, said they thought their daughter would be safe at the university despite their concerns about the partying and student culture.

If the party had been smaller or controlled, he believed his daughter would still be here.

He hoped any recommendations might give the authorities more controls and options so they could prevent deaths like this from happening.

Without changes, he said he was concerned there would be more injuries or deaths.

Sophia Crestani's mother Elspeth McMillan during her daughter's inquest on 27 May 2024.

Elspeth McMillan speaks at her daughter's inquest. Photo: Otago Daily Times / Gregor Richardson

McMillan said her daughter had an infectious laugh and lit up every room.

Crestani should be living her best life and it was devastating to lose so much potential and miss out on all she would bring to the world, she said.

She remembered being shocked and disgusted by the sights and the out-of-control partying, saying it took a death for people to wake up to the danger.

She wanted Crestani to be remembered not for the tragic way she died, but as the vibrant and fun person she was.

The Sophia Charter was launched in the wake of her death, with multiple organisations including the university and police pledging to support students and reduce harm.

McMillan hoped any recommendations would support ongoing positive changes that had started to be made with the charter.

Coroner Heather McKenzie during the Sophia Crestani inquest in Dunedin District Court on 27 May 2024.

Coroner Heather McKenzie. Photo: Otago Daily Times / Gregor Richardson

Coroner Heather McKenzie said the family's loss was incalculable.

It would have been a great shock and distress for her parents to hear the news of her death, and they have handled the coronial process with grace and courage, she said.

Her family has a desire to see changes in student culture in the wake of her death, she said, and they had already made positive changes to help improve the safety of students.

Warning about overcrowding

Jennifer Adamson

Jennifer Adamson Photo: RNZ / Tess Gerritsen

The property manager overseeing the Manor, Jennifer Adamson, said she warned the tenants about overcrowding after meeting with them following noise complaints.

She had no authority to stop parties, even if she heard there was a big one being planned, Adamson said.

She was bound by the Tenancies Act so she would approach campus security and let them know about any big parties planned or speak to the tenants to tell them to be responsible and careful.

She was asked by Bede Crestani about noise complaints. He noted there was an increase in complaints in the years leading up to 2019.

They didn't get notice when tenants were visited from noise control, she said.

The Dunedin City Council had asked them to take action following noise complaints and she had spoken to tenants about their responsibilities.

She was asked why she didn't refer them to the Tenancy Tribunal. She said there were two parties she was aware of and that wasn't enough to end the tenancy.

She viewed the university taking over or leasing the property as a way to help control their behaviour as the university would put their students in it.

She was unaware of the party that resulted in Sophia Crestani's death.

The inquest is set to run for five days.

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