1 Feb 2011

Navy crew tried to rescue colleague, inquest told

6:05 pm on 1 February 2011

An inquest into the death of a seaman serving on a Navy vessel has been told of attempts to try to rescue the drowning man.

Able Seamen Byron Solomon died after becoming trapped under an inflatable boat during an exercise aboard HMNZS Canterbury off the coast of Northland on 5 October 2007.

An inquest began at the Auckland District Court on Tuesday.

The 22-year-old was being lowered into the water in an inflatable boat with three other colleagues during a routine exercise when a faulty clip gave way.

Senior Combat Specialist Adrian Shelford described the moments before the boat capsized, trapping his colleague.

"The boat started swinging out from the ship ... I think I tried hanging on, but I just got sucked under."

The ship's diver, Mark Taylor, disobeyed orders from his superiors and leapt in the water to help his colleagues. He says he found Able Seaman Solomon, who was already limp and appeared unconscious.

"I managed to grab hold of his upper body and pull him back out ... and get his head above water, but I could only maintain that for 10 to 20 seconds and then (there was) this rush of water. We just kept going back under."

Equipment failures on ship

An earlier Defence Force court inquiry found equipment failures on the multi-role vessel led to the drowning.

An independent review found the Canterbury was not capable of serving out all its roles until $20 million worth of repairs were carried out.

Former Commanding Officer of the Canterbury Anthony Miller told the inquest they had had other problems with the ship while taking part in an exercise with the Chinese Navy.

"The weather conditions of that day were very different to the day that Byron passed away and previously I'd forgotten until I was reminded this morning that the starboard seaboat had suffered a similar parting of the jib shackle."

Coroner Brandt Shortland told the court the inquest had been a long time coming and his recommendations will only focus on the circumstances surrounding the death.

The Chief of the Navy, Rear Admiral Anthony Parr was on the Canterbury at the time of the incident. He was not in court on Tuesday, but gave a statement through the Defence Force's lawyer.

Rear Admiral Parr says Able Seaman Solomon's death has affected every member of the Navy and all the boats have been replaced and training has improved.

At the end of the hearing, Byron Solomon's colleagues asked to address his family. They said they had been teaching him the ways of the Navy, but after his death they think he is now teaching the Navy how to improve safety.

Family wants more answers

Outside court, the sailor's father, Bill Solomon, said he would like the Navy to explain why the equipment was allowed to be used - even after problems had been noted.

"It really is a case of was this a preventable death? Personally, I think it was. People talk about getting closure; closure for us happened a little after 11 o'clock on October the 5th 2007 when a life was lost ... We'll never get over this."

The inquest is expected to conclude on Wednesday after Mr Solomon and his wife give evidence.