4 Aug 2011

Buck stops with Goff, dead sailor's father says

10:18 pm on 4 August 2011

The father of a sailor who died while on a Navy exercise says the buck needs to stop with Labour leader Phil Goff, the Defence Minister at the time.

A coroner has ruled that Able Seaman Byron Solomon's drowning in a training exercise off Cape Reinga was unnecessary and preventable.


The 22-year-old crewman on HMNZS Canterbury died in October 2007. He was being lowered into the water in the seaboat with three other sailors during a routine launch when a faulty clip gave way.

Two men were thrown free and a third escaped, but Mr Solomon remained trapped under the boat's hull as it was towed behind the ship. He was pulled from the water after 25 minutes.

His father, Bill Solomon, says there appeared to be a lot of political point-scoring at the time, particularly by Mr Goff as the Defence Minister in the Labour-led government, and the buck needs to stop with him.

But Mr Goff said on Thursday that ministers have to rely on the advice of people with technical expertise to determine whether a vessel is fit for service, and no government would knowingly agree to put a vessel into service if there were safety concerns.

"I feel deep regret and condolences for Mr Solomon but the fact is, that issues of safety are paramount. Those issues are determined by professionals - not the minister."

Mr Goff said he will not answer further questions about the matter.

Mr Solomon told Checkpoint Mr Goff's refusal to comment further is surprising, given he was minister at the time the Canterbury was commissioned.

He is not looking for an apology from Mr Goff, saying the time has passed.

"What I would like to see is for Phil Goff to be man enough to stand up and say 'Look, I was in control, I was running the Ministry of Defence at the time. This tragedy occurred on my watch - and it shouldn't have.'"

Coroner's findings

Northland coroner Brandt Shortland says the ship had gone straight into service without the Navy becoming familiar with it operationally and mechanically.

He criticised the absence of a full safety certification process for the vessel and said the haste with which HMNZS Canterbury was rushed into service contributed to the death.

Mr Shortland recommended that no naval ship should be accepted into service until proper and credible trials are completed and critically reviewed.

The coroner said Byron Solomon's death was unnecessary, and illustrates that safety is paramount and no expense should be spared in establishing good, reliable systems.

Bill Solomon says the findings support what he has suspected all along.

"I think it's a travesty that because of the Government's keenness to get the ship into service before it was ready, someone has to die, and that someone happened to be our son.

"There are dangers associated with being part of our Defence Force but at least you should be able to have some confidence in the equipment that is supplied."

Mr Solomon said a number of things have been left unanswered, and he would have hoped more time could have been spent examining the acquisition and certification process.

However, he said the inquest has left it open for the acquisition process to be looked at in another legal forum.

Defence Minister Wayne Mapp said lessons had been learned from Mr Solomon's tragic death and the process to introduce new vessels had been made much more robust.

Navy accepts findings, considers apology

The Navy is considering issuing a formal apology to Byron Solomon's family.

The Chief of the Navy, Rear Admiral Tony Parr, said on Thursday the Navy accepts the coroner's report and recommendations and changes have been made, including to its launch and recovery systems.

Rear Admiral Parr told Morning Report the death was tragic and an unlikely combination of circumstances. He said the Navy has been in regular touch with the family to convey its deepest sympathy.

Mr Solomon's family say they cannot recall the Navy ever having made a formal apology and are not ruling out legal action.