18 Feb 2010

Outdoor centre boss apologises for canyoning tragedy

8:59 pm on 18 February 2010

The head of the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre has apologised unreservedly to the parents of seven people who died on a canyoning trip in 2008.

Six students and their teacher from Elim Christian College in Auckland died in the Mangatepopo Gorge during flash flooding on 15 April 2008.

They were on a school canyoning trip at the outdoor pursuits centre in Tongariro National Park.

The centre's chief executive, Grant Davidson, told an inquest in Auckland on Thursday he was sorry for the anguish and heartache caused by the tragedy.

Mr Davidson said he accepts ultimate responsibility, blaming poor systems and poor decisions by staff at the centre.

Other witnesses have told the inquest of bad communication, a high staff turnover and a lack of support for junior staff.

Despite that, the centre was given a pass mark by safety auditor Jillian Dalton 11 days after the canyoning deaths.

Ms Dalton, who was coincidentally at the site the day the group died, came under scrutiny at the inquest.

Police lawyer Ben Vandekolk put it to Ms Dalton that she had not done her job properly as she made assumptions about the competency of the group's guide.

Ms Dalton replied that her job was to check that policy was being complied with and she had followed the right procedures.

Instructor 'haunted' by deaths

An instructor at the Outdoors Pursuits Centre told the inquest on Thursday he is haunted by the fact he never stopped the group from entering Mangatepopo Gorge.

Peter Zimmer says he was working with a different group at the centre that day and felt he had a responsibility to them.

Mr Zimmer said he became worried when he realised that the Elim group was heading to the gorge as there were signs that the river could rise.

He told the inquest he now wishes he had gone to get the group and often asks himself why he did not.