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Emotions Run High At Inquest

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Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

Auckland, Feb 16 NZPA - Emotions ran high today as families of six Auckland students and their teacher who died in a canyoning tragedy listened to evidence at their inquest.

Elim Christian College students Natasha Bray, Portia McPhail, Tara Gregory, Tom Hsu, Anthony Mulder and Floyd Fernandes, and teacher Tony McClean died in the Mangatepopo Gorge near Turangi when they were washed away by a river while on an outdoor adventure course on April 15, 2008.

Hastings coroner Christopher Devonport is holding the inquest in Auckland.

Relatives sighed and hugged as they heard evidence from Kerry Charles Palmer, an outdoor pursuits field manager at the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre (OPC).

He said he wished the instructor had not taken the group into the gorge.

Mr Palmer, who was also involved in the search and rescue operation, said he had earlier told instructor Jodie Sullivan the river might rise quickly as a lot of rain had fallen.

"I asked her why she was still going into the gorge. She said she wouldn't go far.

"I told her to check the river levels when she got into the gorge. But I wish I'd told her not to go into the gorge," Mr Palmer said.

For the Crown, Ben Vanderkolk asked Mr Palmer if Ms Sullivan was competent, and he confirmed her gorge competency had not been signed off.

Mr Vanderkolk then asked if Ms Sullivan's decision to tell the students to get into the river and swim tied together would be hazardous.

"Those who were not strong swimmers could get carried with the current and their chances of survival would decrease," Mr Palmer said.

Mr Devonport asked him if he accepted that the gorge was a dangerous place.

He said it was "potentially dangerous".

The inquest was told that only two survived, despite having personal flotation devices. The two strongest swimmers also died.

Mr Vanderkolk asked questions on behalf of parents who lost their children in the tragedy.

They wanted to know whose responsibility it was to ensure instructors were familiar with the contents of a risk analysis report about a number of other incidents which had previously happened in the gorge.

The full contents of the report are suppressed.

Mr Palmer said he had run through the report with Ms Sullivan, but when questioned earlier in the inquest she said she hadn't got round to reading it.

Ms Sullivan told the court yesterday she underestimated how fast the river rose in the afternoon as a storm closed in.

Asked today whether there were people in the group who were not strong swimmers, Ms Sullivan agreed but said she was close enough to catch people.

Mr Vanderkolk asked her if the students knew what the risks were, and what would happen to them.

"They knew that jumping into the water was a risk," she said.

A tearful Ms Sullivan today asked for an adjournment as she could not go on. She also broke down yesterday, and her lawyer read the rest of her statement.

She told the inquest she had underestimated how fast the river rose between 2.30pm and 3.30pm.

She stood with the group on a ledge, but decided they would be better to go down the river.

No criminal charges were laid over the incident but the OPC was last year ordered to pay $480,000 in fines and reparation after admitting two charges laid by the Department of Labour under the Health and Safety in Employment Act.

The department had said the OPC should have known from the heavy rain that the group should never have entered the gorge, even though the water levels were not high when they entered.

It also said the OPC should have either subscribed to the MetService's weather warning service, or kept an eye on its website for weather warnings on the day of the tragedy.

The inquest will resume tomorrow at 10am.

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