20 Mar 2009

Outdoor centre fined $480,000 over canyoning deaths

9:41 pm on 20 March 2009

An outdoor pursuits centre involved in a canyoning tragedy in which seven people died has been ordered to pay $480,000 in fines and reparation.

The Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre was sentenced in Auckland District Court on Friday over its failure to ensure the safety of six Elim College students and their teacher.

The group were killed when swept away during a flash flood while canyoning in the Mangetepopo Gorge, near Turangi in the central North Island, on 15 April.

The outdoor pursuits centre previously pleaded guilty to two charges relating to failing to keeping the group safe.

The Department of Labour told the court the gorge route where the Auckland students and teacher were killed was an obvious hazard which should have been closed on the day of the fatal trip.

The department said four storm warnings were issued on 15 April. However, it said the outdoor pursuits centre was not signed up to receive updated warnings from MetService.

The department said the gorge walk was a well-known hazard and the centre should have closed the route because of the heavy rain in the area.

Judge Ann Kiernan said the event was an obvious and dramatic breach of trust of the young people who had come to use the centre's services.

She said the gorge should never have been open that day and the centre's staff should have moved quickly to call back the group once the weather turned bad.

"There is a high degree of risk in this workplace. There is, therefore, a high degree of responsibility to ensure safety and supervision of employees and those they are supervising, especially groups of children," Judge Kiernan said.

"This is a tragedy which should not have occurred and a tragedy which could have been avoided."

Of the money awarded, $440,000 is to be paid to families of the victims and $40,000 is in fines.

Jennifer Fernandes, the mother of one of the students killed, said she is satisfied with the sentence and pleased to see such a high level of accountability.

However, Ms Fernandes said she is still devastated at losing her son, Floyd.

"Loss of children can't bring a closure ... it's always going to be there. But at least we know that OPC has pleaded guilty and have acknowledged their fault. And that brings a level of satisfaction."

We will go back some day - principal

Elim Christian College principal Murray Burton told Checkpoint on Friday the experience had been "harrowing" and the reparations and fines imposed were appropriate.

Mr Burton said he hoped improvements would be made at the outdoor pursuits centre and did not want to see it closed.

"OPC is really owned by its recipients and I want to see that place become better, safer and still be in existence so that it can work with the kids of our country," he said.

"We still love going there and at some point in the future we'll go back. We need places like that."

The chairperson of the Outdoor Pursuits Centre Trust said he would not comment on the sentence on Friday, as trust members needed to assess the judgment.

However, Rupert Wilson said their thoughts are with the parents of those who died in the tragedy.