Sophia Crestani inquest: Locking flat doors 'clearly unsafe', tenant admits

5:30 pm on 28 May 2024
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University of Otago student Sophia Crestani, 19, died during a stairwell pile-up at an overcrowded flat party in October 2019. Photo: RNZ

A Dunedin tenant says barricading the doors to contain a fatal student flat party was one of the worst decisions he has ever made.

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

An inquest is underway in Dunedin.

The tenants blocked off other exits at The Manor, sealed up doors and put plastic on the floors ahead of the fatal party.

The tenant - who has name suppression - said they barricaded most of the upstairs doors because there were concerns about people falling off the balcony or ripping hand basins off the wall in the bathroom.

They had told the authorities about the party through the Good One Party Register, he said.

He told Sophia's father Bede Crestani during cross-examination that he did nothing to look after the health and safety of guests, and was drunk by about 8pm.

In hindsight, only having one entrance and exit "seems clearly unsafe", the tenant said.

When he made his way to his room, the party felt safe and it was just slow progress to move around because the house was full, he said.

He recalled spending most of the party in his room with others and not opening the door when people were smacking on it, as pounding on doors was not uncommon at parties.

A friend left his room via the window, coming back to say there were police around, and then others left via the window while he stayed in his room, he said.

He broke down when he was asked about Sophia's death, saying he thought about it every day.

He told Bede Crestani that they did not consider putting adhesive plastic on the ground was a safety risk at the time, thinking it was a handy way to protect the ground.

During cross-examination, Sophia's mother Elspeth McMillan asked why people reported they were on the balcony and the bathroom if they closed it off. They took steps to barricade the doors to the balcony and bathroom, but not the windows, the tenant said.

Sophia Crestani died at a student party in Dunedin in October 2019

Sophia Crestani and her mother, Elspeth McMillan. Photo: Supplied / Otago Daily Times

The tenants had moved into The Manor in February in 2019, and had about 14 noise complaints and seven excessive noise directions by September.

It was not abnormal for North Dunedin student flats to get noise complaints, and acknowledged their significance might have been dulled by what seemed to be the normal, the tenant said.

The tenant said he did not remember receiving earlier emails raising concerns about overcrowding and safety from the property manager or proctor, but he would have raised any issues with other tenants.

At the time, he said it seemed as though the property manager was "out to get you" and were only concerned about the property, but it did not look that way in hindsight.

There was an expectation for named student flats in North Dunedin to hold parties, the tenant said.

'It felt like ages', tenant who was trapped says

Another tenant at The Manor, who has interim name suppression, said he was DJing earlier in the evening and stayed for a friend's set until about 11.30pm.

He left the room, saying it was "shoulder-to-shoulder" and too packed for people to come up the stairs.

He was near the top of the stairs, talking to Sophia's friend when people started pushing and she fell down and he helped her up.

Then the pushing became more forceful.

He did not remember how he got to the bottom of the stairs with up to 30 people in a pile-up, the tenant said.

He heard girls crying and screaming "help me" underneath the mass of people, he said.

He was yelling "call the cops" and said he was trapped for about 10 minutes before someone pulled him out, with bruises around his eyes.

"It felt like ages."

People were still getting pulled out when he was freed.

He did not recall seeing Sophia at the bottom of the stairs, but he knew someone had been hurt and heard someone was getting CPR.

'Too scared to find out the truth'

Rebekah Jordan – counsel assisting at the inquest into Sophia Crestani's death

Rebekah Jordan Photo: ODT / Gregor Richardson

Another tenant at the The Manor, who also has interim name suppression, said people on the stairs were packed like sardines and it was hard to move around.

He met Sophia through mutual friends and they had "kinda had a thing" since hanging out at a party, he said.

On the night of the fatal party, his statement said he stayed upstairs for most of the night on and it filled up.

"I didn't get too wasted because I was hosting and needed to run admin for the party," he said.

He told the inquest he noticed Sophia upstairs and gave her a hug and a kiss and spoke to her briefly before going into his room with some friends later that night.

He recalled the music being turned off in one of the other rooms and going out onto the balcony to find flashing lights and emergency services outside, and being told to go downstairs.

"Someone gave me a hug but I was just confused," he said.

He did not want to believe Sophia had died and did not try to contact her after he was first told, he said.

Sophia's mother Elspeth McMillan questioned whether he felt any responsibility to find out what happened or if anyone was injured when he saw the ambulances.

"I was too scared to find out the truth," the tenant said.

During cross examination, he said was focused on hanging out with his mates and enjoying the party, and he thought the steps they had taken would cover guest safety.

"That's what we've always done and it was sufficient," the tenant said.

They had decided to close off rooms because their property had been damaged at an earlier party, he said.

A police officer had encouraged them to block off the balcony after people had been throwing stuff off it during an earlier party - which they did from then on, he said.

When asked by counsel assisting the coroner Rebekah Jordan if their decisions prioritised personal property over guests, he disagreed.

They had made sure the balcony was closed off, registered the party and had a guest list for invitations, the tenant said.

'I was terrified,' Sophia's friend says

A friend of Sophia Crestani said she was terrified and thought she was going to die while trapped in the pile up.

She saw Sophia and another friend on the stairs, saying it took 15 minutes to get near them as it was "absolutely packed".

"You couldn't control where you were moving," she said.

It was there she described falling and getting her foot stuck in the railing, feeling like her leg was going to snap.

She said somehow ended up on the ground face-down, feeling trapped and helpless in a lot of bodies.

"I was terrified. I thought I was going to die."

Someone grabbed her ankle and pulled her out.

Once freed, she started asking where Sophia and her other friends were, leaving to the house.

When she returned to find her friends, she found emergency services out the front.

Another party-goer told her "It was Sophia".

But she did not want to believe Sophia had died so a group of them went to the emergency department to find her, waiting about an hour, before the police arrived and confirmed she was dead, the witness said.

She described watching as one of Sophia's friends dropped to the ground when they heard the news.

She started crying during the questioning, saying "I'm so sorry" to Sophia's parents at the end of her testimony.

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