Wednesday, 21 January 2009
Canyoning tragedy: centre admits guilt
LIVES LOST: The seven victims of the Mangatepopo canyoning disaster: Tony McClean, Natasha Bray, Floyd Fernandes, Tom Hsu, Portia McPhail, Anthony Mulder and Tara Gregory.
The death of seven young people last year at The Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor pursuits Centre was tragic and jolted me hard. It could have easily been one of my children. My sympathies go out to the families and friends.
Today's headlines announced that "OPC has informed the Department of Labour and the Taumarunui District Court that it will plead guilty to two charges laid under the Health and Safety in Employment (HSE) Act," Department of Labour group workplace services manager Maarten Quivoy said.
This is an unprecedented act in the history of the NZ outdoor education and I wonder where it will end.
Somehow I felt some closeness to the tragedy as I knew Graeme Dingle the founder of the centre and many great instructors there such as Joe Straker, Mick Hopkinson, Bev Smith, Grant Davidson, Peter Dawkins etc.
For five years I ran the New Zealand Outward Bound School at Anakiwa and we used to exchange staff and together, work on improving safety standards. I placed huge emphasis on safety at Outward Bound at Anakiwa when I was Director. Some nights I would lay awake and listen to high winds and torrential rain knowing that over 100 students were out in the wilds: sea, river, bush and solo experiences alone, I used to pray that everyone was safe. In five years we never had a death, not even a serious injury. We had our cuts, sprains and sicknesses.
Was I lucky ? The Directors immediately before and after me had the misfortune of losing a life each under their directorship and were equally committed to high safety standards. There is a thin line between human judgement and an “Act of God”, and it takes a brave judge to pass a judgement on a situation like the one that occurred at OPC last year.
My daughter and her husband work at an outdoor pursuits centre near Whakatane and we discussed this very issue over the Christmas holiday. I could hear the anguish in her voice when she talked about situations when the weather changed suddenly and her students were at risk, but she got them home safely.
During my time as Director of the NZ Outward Bound School I was on rivers where the levels rose without warning and thanks to the training of the instructors and myself, we got the students off the rivers without mishap, often by the skin of our teeth. This was due to good training, providing the students as high a level of skills as possible in a short time, This was over 20 years ago and we had no radios to communicate and if we were lucky, we might get a weather forecast from the local radio station. If things were looking dicey, we had to err on the cautious side.
I would not like to be an outdoor instructor today. With so many extra aids at your finger-tips such as immediate weather forecasts, mobile phones, instant radio communications it would be easy to spend most of your time checking every possible piece of available information and building doomsday scenarios, at the cost of limiting your time with the students.
An integral part of outdoor education is self and group development where at times, the instructor needs to take pupils beyond their own self-imposed limitations. With a national cry for greater safety standards in the outdoors, are we going to see handrails up mountains and access and exit points every 100 metres down rivers ?
I went to the OPC website and noted the reference to calculated risk.
They are exposed to a range of new recreational activities, they learn to push beyond comfort barriers and they are exposed to the positive gains from accepting calculated risk.
The Mangatepopo Valley where the incident occured.
What I find a little ironic is the name of the centre concerned, The Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor pursuits Centre., named after a NZ icon, and a clear risk taker. He witnessed so many tragedies in his life as a climber and there were serious injuries on his expeditions or expedition he was a member of, The Ruth Adams accident, Peter Mulgrew’s frostbite and later amputations after an ascent a Makalau, the 1954 Baruntse expedition where Jim McFarlane went down a crevasse and got severe frostbite and later amputations. Sir Ed also took huge gambles on mountains and had he not done so, he would never have climbed Everest. Similarly, he took a huge gamble in 1958 to head off Sir Vivian Fuchs and beat him to the South Pole on New Zealand farm tractors. The great outdoors are a dangerous place at times. And, part of OPC's philosophy that students "are exposed to the positive gains from accepting calculated risk." What would have Sir Ed said about this tragedy? I am pretty sure and so would Graeme Dingle and others who knew Ed's philosophy on the outdoors.
To Jodie Sullivan the instructor who will carry the burden for this, I would like to say "it could have been any one of thousands of instructors. including myself, but unluckily the dice rolled your way." Be easy on yourself and know you have lots of support. And I repeat what I said earlier, "There is a thin line between human judgement and an “Act of God.”
Here is the article from Stuff that gives further background.
The Christian School that lost six students and a teacher in last year's canyoning tragedy has welcomed the decision of the outdoor pursuit centre involved to accept responibility.
In April last year, students from Elim Christian College in Auckland were on a canyoning adventure at the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuit Centre in Turangi when rapidly rising, flash-flood waters in the Mangatepopo Gorge swept many of them away.
The centre will plead guilty to two charges linked to the deaths, the centre's chairman Rupert Wilson said at a press conference today.
Two other charges have been withdrawn by the Department of Labour.
Elim Christian College today said they were pleased the centre was accepting responsibility and accountability for the tragedy.
"We understand the reasons for the withdrawal of the other two charges and wish to commend the Department of Labour team for their investigation," the school said in a statement.
"We are hopeful that it will now be possible to conclude the remainder of the police investigation and the coroner inquest much earlier than anticipated.
"While nothing can erase what has happened or restore our broken families we want to ensure that as a consequence of this unfortunate process that a tragedy of this kind can be averted in the future and adventure activities of this kind made even safer."
In October, the Department of Labour laid four charges under the Health and Safety in Employment Act against the centre. They were due to be heard in Taumarunui District Court today but the centre said the charges would now not be formally called and neither the department nor the centre would appear.
"OPC has informed the Department of Labour and the Taumarunui District Court that it will plead guilty to two charges laid under the Health and Safety in Employment (HSE) Act," Department of Labour group workplace services manager Maarten Quivoy said.
OPC will plead guilty to one charge under the Act that, as an employer, it failed to take all practicable steps to ensure the safety of its employee, Jodie Sullivan, while at work. Ms Sullivan was the OPC instructor who led the high school group into the gorge.
The second charge is that OPC failed to take all practicable steps to ensure that no action or inaction of Jodie Sullivan harmed any other person.
The other two charges were withdrawn because the department considered they were adequately covered by the charges now subject to the guilty pleas.
Mr Wilson said that the most important factor in making the plea was that the children were in the centre's care when the tragedy occurred.
He also said they decided on making the plea because any defended hearing would delay the Coroner's Court hearings for up to two years.
The case will now be adjourned until sentencing.
A sentencing date has yet to be set by Taumarunui District Court.