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Mother Speaks Out After Inquest

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

Auckland, Feb 19 NZPA - The mother of one of the six students who drowned with their teacher on a Central North Island canyoning trip said today it was a tragedy that didn't have to happen and she was still angry at the loss of lives.

Speaking outside Auckland District Court today, Catherine Linnen, mother of 16-year-old Tara Gregory, said the inquest had left more questions to be answered.

She felt that staff at the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre (OPC) should have been held more accountable.

"Why did these people make these decisions? Now we've got a whole new set of questions to wrestle with for the next few weeks. I just hope that nothing like this happens again," she said.

Ms Lineen, a school teacher, said she agreed that children should experience the outdoors.

"I don't want to see these kind of trips stopped because they are great learning experiences for young people.

"But at the same time, it needs to be done in a safe environment with all the controls there so it can't happen again.

"We don't need to lose another seven people because things weren't done properly."

Ms Linnen said she felt "sad, pretty angry, confused, deluded and agitated" after hearing the evidence given at the inquest this week.

"There are no words to describe what it's done to me...I'm just angry at the waste of lives," she said. "It did not have to happen. It was preventable."

Tara was one of the Elim Christian College group caught by sudden rising water levels in the Mangatepopo Gorge in the Tongariro National Park on April 15, 2008.

She was washed away with other students Natasha Bray, Portia McPhail, Tom Hsu, Anthony Mulder and Floyd Fernandes, and teacher Tony McClean, from the Auckland school.

Reserving his findings, coroner Christopher Devonport expressed his sincere condolences to the families involved.

"There's a large body of evidence which I will consider," Mr Devonport said.

"You've had the opportunity to ask questions and hopefully get satisfactory answers which will enable you to understand what went on.

"My role is not to determine liability, but the cause of death and make recommendations to prevent deaths occurring in the future.

"The deaths should not have occurred. That is not denied by anybody."

Earlier today, OPC chief executive Grant Davidson told the inquest that he believed OPC did not cut corners on safety for financial reasons.

The tragedy was a result of a large number of things which came together on the day, he said.

He understood the moral dilemma OPC instructor Jodie Sullivan had when she took the group into the gorge.

"There were students in her care who would not survive the experience. She had to decide whether to leave them or give them a better chance by attaching them together.

"It's what she decided to do for the best at the time. It was a horrible situation to be in," Mr Davidson said.

When asked by coroner Mr Devonport if he could comment on the practice of linking people together to cross a river, he said it was a "highly dangerous" procedure.

The coroner said that the rising water levels seemed to have been overlooked by almost everybody that day.

Updated weather warnings should have been in place before the group headed out to the gorge, he said.

"There should be proper instruction in leading gorge trips, including the extent of river levels rising, and an adequate monitoring of the rainfall catchment during, and three hours prior to, entering the gorge.

"The field manager should be responsible for having an overall picture of the environmental conditions. Consideration should also be given to having two instructors go out on a gorge trip," he said.

Paul White, representing OPC, told the inquest 10 recommendations had already been put in place since the tragedy.

These included receiving a subscription to severe weather warnings from the MetService, and taking two instructors out on trips.

The gorge has remained closed since the fatalities, and OPC had conducted an external independent review in the wake of the tragedy.

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