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OPC Manager Apologises To Families

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

Auckland, Feb 17 NZPA - An outdoor pursuits centre manager today apologised to the families of six Auckland students and their teacher, who died in a Central North Island canyoning tragedy in April 2008.

"Like so many others, I shall forever be haunted by the events that unfolded," John Robert Maxted told an inquest into the deaths being held by an Hastings coroner Christopher Devonport in Auckland.

Mr Maxtad was manager of the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre (OPC) from July 2007 until January 2009.

Elim Christian College students Natasha Bray, Portia McPhail, Tara Gregory, Tom Hsu, Anthony Mulder and Floyd Fernandes, and teacher Tony McClean lost their lives while taking part in an outdoor adventure course in the Mangatepopo Gorge near Turangi on April 15, 2008.

They were trapped in the gorge when heavy rain caused the river to rise rapidly, then washed away when they entered the water in a bid to reach safety.

It was a tragedy that should never have happened, Mr Maxted said.

"I apologise unreservedly to all who have been affected by the accident, and especially to the parents and families."

There were significant pressures upon centre staff to deliver quality programmes with very limited resources, which he believed contributed significantly to the tragedy, he said.

"The manner in which the instructional team was organised meant that instructors were required to operate more independently and with less active supervision than was ideal, and this undoubtedly contributed to the events of April 15.

"In my view the field manager Kerry Palmer had too many direct reports (a training officer, up to 14 instructors, and contracted instructors at times).

"I was continuing work on a restructuring proposal on the day of the accident, which was essentially about sharing the load of supervising the field team," Mr Maxted said.

He believed staff turnover and the subsequent loss of institutional and local area knowledge was a significant root cause of the tragedy.

He was very upset to find out the number of previous incidents OPC had experienced in the gorge and thought, in hindsight, instructors should have been made more aware of historical incidents.

"Out of this tragedy must emerge learning for OPC, other outdoor centres, and the national and international outdoor community.

"In my heart I know the organisational culture and processes at OPC Tongariro played a significant part in the on-the-spot behaviours and decisions of individual staff," Mr Maxted said.

He said he gave his initial police and Department of Labour interviews when under immense stress, through providing support for his staff and continuing to lead the centre under enormous public scrutiny.

Earlier, Crown solicitor Ben Vanderkolk asked OPC field manager Kerry Palmer if he had a rescue plan to go up the gorge to look for the group himself.

Mr Palmer, who was involved in the search and rescue operation, said it was too dangerous for him to go into the gorge to rescue the group, led by OPC instructor Jodie Sullivan, as conditions had become too difficult.

The coroner told Mr Palmer the families of the students and teacher had put their loved ones in the care of OPC that day.

"You as field manager didn't know where Ms Sullivan was in the gorge, which shows a lack of importance in communication between the manager and the instructor.

"Ms Sullivan says she wasn't able to do the full gorge trip. She'd got to the halfway ledge but she'd been given no clear directions on what to do if the river rose quickly."

Mr Palmer said the amount of rain that had fallen that morning wasn't sufficient to cause flooding in the gorge.

"When I spoke to Ms Sullivan at 11.30am it wasn't raining. If I had known it would be a significant weather event, our conversation would have been quite different," Mr Palmer said.

Earlier this week, Ms Sullivan told the court she underestimated how fast the river rose in the afternoon as a storm closed in. She told the court the students knew that jumping into the water was a risk.

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