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.


Ruahines said...

Kia ora Bob,
I am very concerned about this issue, particularly the last few days listening to a lowest common demoninator talk back host Micheal Laws prattle on about the need for scalps in this tragic episode. What guarantees do people want when interacting with wild places? Do the benefits outweigh the risks for young people, for any person, who puts themselves in situations or places that are both beautiful and potentially dangerous? Do we create an outdoors full of cement walkways, barriers, and wardens watching every move?
This was tragic accident, and certainly the systems invovled need to be reviewed, but this incessant need to blame someone I do not fully understand.
When I take my boys tramping I am ultra cautious, but there are still moments of risk. I have spent many extra days, as have you, waiting out weather or situations, rather than carry on, yet there have still been close calls along the way. In the end I would not have it any other way.
I fully realize we do not send our children to these organizations thinking they will be at risk, or even killed,but
to think there is no risk at all,or want assurances that nothing bad will ever happen is defeating the whole concept of wild places. As Edward Abbey wrote of traveling iin the desert successfully, "Enter at Your Own Risk".
My empathy goes out to the families and to the staff involved in this horrible tragedy, but this witch hunt must end. Lets fix the systems and move on. Too many young people, and people like Laws are so disconnected from nature and wild places. These organiztions do good work.

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Kia Ora

I cannot but endorse what you have written. In sending your child to a reputable outdoor centre, the biggest risk is an accident or death on the road. A number of outdoor centres have had a death which are either in, or not to far from an, Act Of God happening, and everyone learns. Tragic as it may sound, it is evolution. People like Laws want more laws , regulation and retribution.

Off to football with the boys. Have a great weekend. We celebrate the Chinese New year on Monday.


Unknown said...

Interesting thoughts Bob.

What I can't see is anything positive coming out of this tragedy. How many commentators have noted how grossly underfunded the outdoor education sector is?

If we place importance on sending our kids into the outdoors why don't we fund the centres properly, at least create wage equality betwenn outdoor instructors and other teachers?

The other thing I believe it exposes is that all the good paperwork and procedures in the world don't count for anything compared to good staff training. Personal experience and judgement are everything in the outdoors.

I think I may have to blog about this at some stage. It is going to be interesting to see all the reports etc drift out over the next few years.

Take care


ps: Robb, flick the switch on Michael Laws bro!

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...


Right on Jamie. You've worked sometime in the outdoors and you know how difficult it is to get funding. DoC had little funding and it took Cave Creek and the death of about 12 people to jolt the Government into funding outdoor tracks, bridges, swing bridges and camping grounds etc. The best ever Minister for Sport and Rec was Phil Goff, the leader of the opposition now. Let's lobby him and dear old Helene, she likes a bit of outdoor rec.

Tred gentle Jamie.


Marja said...

Didn't this happen already a while ago. This is a difficult subject. I've worked with people who worked voluntary with kids outdoors all the time. They all took safety serious but all knew that there are risk involved and things happen here and everywhere. I have never met an irresponsible volenteer You wouldn't do the demanding work in the first place if you didn't care.
People who judge are not in the frontlines in the first place
That doesn't take away the sadness of course but lets not make it even more difficult

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Thanks mMrja. I appreciate your point of view as i know you have worked with young people for a long time. No one sets out to harm people, and no matter the degree of experience, things can go wrong. My heart goes out to the families too. Bob

Anonymous said...

Hello Bob.

I think the topic of risk in the outdoors sometimes (not always) correlates with people making mistakes. For most tragedies, it's possible to look back in hindsight and claim that somebody should have checked the weather forecast, or they should have had better footwear, or they shouldn't have tried to cross a river in flood, or they should have been using ropes, or they should have avoided doing whatever they did because they didn't have the skills, and so on.

This criticism is often justified as there are certainly many people out there who jump into doing silly things in the outdoors without necessary caution. I never had the impression that this was the case with the Outdoor Pursuits Center, though. It strikes me as an organisation that would typically excercise extreme caution for good reason, and was simply caught out by unfortunate circumstances. The words you've expressed in this post simply reinforce my belief of this.

From time to time I've wondered if we (as a nation) get too critical, and need to openly accept that you can prepare and organise and research and plan until the end of time, but sometimes people simply make mistakes -- even extremely cautious and conservative people. Often they're silly mistakes that people would never make under normal circumstances and they're embarassing in hindsight, but people make them anyway, because that's what people do.

The most recent time I remember really thinking this was in August last year when the group of six Australians were rescued from Mount Cook National Park after a week-long trip and being caught in a storm. Perhaps you're in a better position to understand the details of that event beyond what was reported in the media, but I remember at the time it sounded as if they were generally very well prepared for what they had planned. Once they were finally rescued, and it was reported they'd spent a day or two desperately trying to keep their tents dug out, I remember at least one SAR official being portrayed as grumbling that they should have taken more snow shovels. I'm sure this was true, and I'd wager that the members of that party would have realised exactly the same thing after the event. The way it was presented to the public in this particular report, however, was that they were stupid idiots who hadn't prepared properly... seemingly just like everyone else who gets themselves into trouble.

The woman who was swept away crossing a river on Egmont recently made a bad decision. She let her desire to get out and the pelting rain overtake her judgement of the danger of the flooded river, and tried to cross when she should have. It's likely that if she was watching from an outside perspective, she would have considered it as a textbook case of when not to cross, but she did so anyway because actually being in a difficult situation can cloud people's judgement.

I like to think that in similar situations I'd do exactly the right thing. I'd return the way I came, or set up my shelter and wait it out until it was safe to cross. The truth is that I might do the right thing 50 times and mess it up once; perhaps there would be a single time when I'd forget to bring my own shelter. I know I'll make unintended mistakes from time to time, as will everyone (some more than others). I just have to do everything I can to prepare, and take the risk that those mistakes and mis-judgements won't cross with the occasions in which they could lead to serious consequences. It's a low risk and one I'm willing to take, but I can't absolutely guarantee that it's a risk that will never occur.

I do think it's ironic that one of my biggest fears from outdoor activities is not having an accident and needing to invoke a rescue operation (perhaps it should be) as it is being portayed as an idiot in the media after it happens. Perhaps this is a good thing. :)

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Dear Mike

Sorry for a late response to your comments. You raise so many salient points that I don't feel a need to comment, as you have covered a lot of ground that I generally agree with.

Yes the fear of having to be rescued and portrayed as an idiot is a good deterent.

Ruahines, Jamie, Marja and yourself have all made pertinent comments and I thank you for yours.


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Anonymous said...

Except that this wasn't an accident but more of an inevitability with 20 or so previous scares they had had on this river.

The big difference with Ed HiLary is that he chose to risk his life. These kids were on a course to push them a bit but in a safe and controlled way. Maybe a skinned knee or broken arm at the mosteoporosis

The OPC director here blamed the instructor and everyone else but I didn't hear him take blame.

I'd say it was 50% his fault and 40% the centres slack safety. The Directors comments contradict the Auditors Report which said that OPC didn't protect the instructor or the children

Jodie had only one trip in the gorge as a solo guide and wasn't experienced enough to make the call to do the trip. She may have believed she was but she's not a Raft Guide or experienced kayaker as far as I know

The job of the live in director and senior instructors is to protect the cHildren and the trainee instructors

At least this time an outdoor centre was forced to take responsibility and they couldn't blame the kids as they did at the Te Taitotini Polytech and even at Outward Bound with Susans group

I'm relieved to hear that didn't happen under your watch but I know you're a man of great care and experience from my climbing days

And the Coroner scathingly saying they would all have survived if they had stayed on the ledge as the water level dropped half an hour after they started to leave is pointless.

Easy to say from a comfy armchair with the times and river levels in front of you.

But the light was fading, the river was rising and the kids were getting hypothermia. If the river had kept rising then Jodie would have saved 4 lives instead of them all being dead
With more experience she would have either not gone, turned back earlier or made them stay there while she swam across and radioed for help.

But could she leave her group there alone with the river rising? Rob Hall couldn't leave his client and he was athe least one hundred times more experienced than her.

I will admit that I learnt with a few near deaths and real respect and knowledge won't come until you've had some scares.

But instructors get that from personal trips

Tony Clearwater

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