29 May 2024

Sophia Crestani inquest: Locking doors, covering floors normal for parties, witness says

5:20 pm on 29 May 2024
Sophia Crestani died at the Dunedin party.

Sophia Crestani was 19 when she died. Photo: Facebook

A Dunedin partygoer says she does not think people appreciate how close so many came to death during a fatal student flat party.

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

The inquest into her death is underway in Dunedin.

The partygoer arrived shortly before 11pm, going upstairs and onto the balcony through the chill room, seeing five people sitting on the roof.

"It was bedlam trying to get up the stairs," she said.

She decided to leave as it was too packed, saying she seriously considered jumping from the roof to the ground to avoid having to move through the overcrowded party.

She and her friends held hands as they tried to move through the crowd and down the stairs, saying people were hopelessly drunk and some had taken MDMA.

While on the stairs, she recalled someone yelling that their leg was going to break, and being pushed off the stairs.

The partygoer said she saw two boys hitting on a downstairs bedroom door, seeing a boy open it a bit and telling them he would not let people in to ease the pressure before closing it.

She described people panicking, becoming hysterical as that room was the only way they could escape the crush, she said.

She did not think people appreciated the seriousness of how close so many came to injury or death.

She was injured during the crush.

She told the inquest she remembered seeing people climbing or clambering over others in the pile.

Partygoers recall seeing Crestani looking scared, trying to help her

Another partygoer said Crestani was starting to go pale and blue after he picked her up after the staircase pile-up.

He told the inquest he did not know how he got down the stairs but remembered holding her and helping to carry her outside.

He did not know who she was.

Emergency services then took over and he was in shock and upset by what happened, he said.

Sophia Crestani's father Bede Crestani thanked him for trying to save his daughter, saying he did more than most.

Another partygoer described Crestani looking terrified and scared while stuck in the staircase pile-up with her.

He said he saw one of The Manor tenants standing in a downstairs doorway when the pile-up started and realised he needed to help.

That tenant has told the inquest he did not open the door or leave his room around that time.

Other witnesses have given evidence that they saw him in the doorway around the time of the pile-up.

The partygoer said he was going downstairs to try and help people in a pile but he fell and had more people fall on top of him.

He saw Crestani's face about a feet or so away and she had a vacant look on her face like she knew it would not go well, he said.

He could only move his head and hands and was having a hard time breathing, but said he reached out and grabbed her hand.

It was a mass of twisted bodies on the floor, yelling and screaming, he said.

He did not want to leave until he knew how Crestani was, and recalled her lying on the floor and not moving.

He described being scared and crying after seeing her, saying it it could have easily have been himself or someone else in the pile.

Her father Bede Crestani thanked him for caring for his daughter.

Concerns balcony could be unsafe for crowds

A tenant of the Manor, who has name suppression, said the tenants were worried about guest safety on their balcony.

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

The boarding of the doors was for guest safety and to keep them off balcony as they thought it would become unsafe fairly quickly if lots of people stood on it, he said.

He stayed in his room for much of the night - which was set up as a chill room and made sure people did not use it as a thoroughfare to get onto the balcony, the tenant said.

He did not think the party was overcrowded, but said he spent all night upstairs and could not see down the hall or the stairs.

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

The Manor. Photo: RNZ / Simon Rogers

The tenant said he realised something was wrong when he saw fire engines and police on the street.

He went out onto the balcony and saw a woman being carried down the steps to the footpath and CPR being carried out with the street packed with people.

"It's hard to forget the night."

When the counsel assisting the coroner, Rebekah Jordan, asked whether they had prioritised property over guest safety, the tenant said it was a harsh way of looking at it.

They barricaded off the balcony for guests and barred entry to rooms to protect their stuff but it was a common practice for party hosts to do that, he said.

The tenant said they had no idea that the barricades would lead to such a negative impact.

Sophia's mother Elspeth McMillan said a Fire and Emergency report found that not more than 50 people should be in the flat and they had invited hundreds of people with only one room open downstairs and two open upstairs connected by a single narrow staircase.

She asked him if he thought it was safe.

The tenant said at the time, they did, but looking back it was not.

McMillan asked him why they did not hire a security guard to protect their guests.

No one would hire a security guard due to the cost and they were unlikely to find security willing to do it, he said.

"We had no idea that many people would be there to warrant a security staff."

They had opened up a third room for the party to make more room for guests, he said.

He was cross examined by Sophia's father Bede Crestani, who asked whether inviting hundreds of people through a private Facebook page was the end of their control on the guest numbers.

They did not have any security, but they did notify Campus, register on Good One and set up the house for the party, the tenant said.

He told Coroner Heather McKenzie that the plastic wrap on the floor was awfully sticky, especially with spilled alcohol on it.

He told the inquest that getting the roughly $4000 bond back mattered a lot as it was "pretty skint" living on a student allowance, but after the party, they could not care less and they just wanted to return the place in a respectful condition.

Locking doors, covering floors normal for parties - witness

A partygoer, who has name suppression, said her flat took similar measures of locking doors and protecting the floors when hosting parties.

In her first statement, she said the party "wasn't heaving with people" when she arrived shortly before 10pm, but "you had to push your way through".

She recalled dancing with her friends, including Crestani, and going behind the barriers to the DJ decks.

The party changed once she and a friend got part-way down the stairs.

People started swaying, falling and being pulled back up, she said.

"There were screams and I could just see a pile of people."

It looked like 10-15 people, she said in her first statement.

Her second statement described a crush of people like sardines, but not a pile or anyone on the floor.

She told the inquest that her second statement, given in March 2020, might have been impacted by the discussions about the tragedy, the trauma and the time lapsed.

In both statements, she recalled seeing one of The Manor tenants near his room, calling to him and him pulling her into his room, where she tried to call the friend she was separated from.

In the tenant's statement, he said he did not leave his room or remember her in his room.

She said she saw police out of the window in the tenant's room and left the house.

She started screaming and crying when she saw someone being resuscitated outside but she did not know it was Crestani, she said.

She was cross examined about noise complaints, saying she remembered other students having their speakers seized following noise complaints.

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