2 Feb 2011

Government pressure to use unsafe ship, inquest told

11:10 pm on 2 February 2011

An experienced Navy commander says there was Government pressure to deploy a ship despite the fact it was known to have safety problems.

Able Seaman Byron Solomon, 22, drowned when he became trapped under one of the HMNZS Canterbury's inflatable boats during an exercise off Northland.

An inquest into his death at the Auckland District Court concluded on Wednesday, with Coroner Brandt Shortland reserving his ruling until later this year.

An earlier Defence Force court inquiry found equipment failures on the multi-role vessel led to the drowning, while an independent review found the ship was not capable of serving out all its roles until $20 million worth of repairs were carried out.

The Canterbury had not long been in service at the time of Byron Solomon's death on 5 October 2007.

Mr Solomon was being lowered into the water in the inflatable boat with three other colleagues during a routine exercise when a faulty clip gave way.

Commander William Craig, the Deputy Inspector General for the Defence Force, who has 33 years' experience, told the inquest the Navy knew that the Canterbury was inadequate.

"Can I draw on the analogy if you buy a car it will have a warrant of fitness. It will also be built to various standards. In this case, some of those standards were lacking."

However, Commander Craig says there was significant pressure to deploy the ship, despite the fact 24 hazards had been identified.

"Well, basically, they were considerably late - so the pressure was the whole way from the Government down ... there were considerable delays across the board."

The Coroner has asked for any further submissions on the inquest to be made by 19 February.

Family blame Defence Minister

Byron Solomon's parents have levelled the blame squarely at the Minister of Defence at the time, Phil Goff.

His mother, Jayne Carceek, told the inquest any pressure to deploy the ship before it was ready is "utterly inexcusable".

"The HMNZS Canterbury incident was foreseeable and preventable. All the previous warning signs were overlooked. The relentless time-bound determination to have (it) commissioned and accepted into service on May 31, 2007 was egotistical.

"Not to have a cohesive project structure and lack of expertise to handle the acquisition is incomprehensible."

Ms Carceek says her son had been reluctant to join the Canterbury in the first place and there was a "great deal of scepticism" about the ship's condition.

She says her son had undertaken a number of specific courses, during which he expressed concern about the rigging and access to the controls.

"It is ironic that someone with Byron's limited experience was able to identify the risk that was to take his life."

His father, Bill Solomon, has accused the Navy of being preoccupied with shining its buttons and boots than ensuring the safety of one of its own and spoke of his family's ever-present grief.

Mr Solomon believes it should not have taken the death of his son to rectify the Canterbury's problems.