Trapped passengers 'feared for their lives'

STACEY KNOTT
Last updated 09:35 13/05/2014
Oliver Sutherland
MARION VAN DIJK/FAIRFAX NZ
DEMANDING ANSWERS: Retired scientist Oliver Sutherland wants a government inquiry into emergency response policies after his bus was trapped overnight between slips in Kaikoura.

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A Nelson man is calling on Prime Minister John Key to launch an inquiry as to why a group was left trapped  in ''perilous'' conditions in a leaking bus near Kaikoura, in the pre-Easter storm.

Retired scientist Oliver Sutherland was one of a group of 27 passengers due to fly from Christchurch to Nelson on April 17 when the storm hampered travel plans.  The flight was cancelled and they were put on a bus to get to Nelson.

Christchurch Airport was a ''shambles'' when they left, and no one was taking names of who was getting on to the buses, he said.

The passengers ended up on a bus for 22 hours. It had intended to go inland through the Lewis Pass, but the road was closed so it went along the East coast.

However, just after Kaikoura on State Highway 1, the bus was stopped by a slip. It was met by Kaikoura police sergeant Matthew Boyce who told the driver to turn back as the road was to be closed until it could be cleared the next day.

Heading back to Kaikoura, the bus was stopped by another slip so it parked over night on SH1.

Sutherland said a slip came down about 1.5 metres in front of the bus. The passengers ranged in age from teens to an 81 year old.

Two people on the bus required medical attention, including a man who had recently been treated for a brain tumour. He was hospitalised as a result of the exhaustion from the 22 hour ordeal, Sutherland said.

They were trapped for about six hours in ''appalling weather'' in a leaking bus in the dark. Communication infrastructure was down, so there was no way of communicating their location.

He said many on board feared for their lives.

''The bus passengers, who had an unstable and moving hillside above them on one side and a raging sea on the other, sat and heard, and then watched, a major slip of boulders, mud and tree debris sweep across the road right in front of the bus.''

He said he was soaked after staying on the bus overnight. They eventually made it back to Christchurch after diggers cleared the slips.

He had contacted the Kaikoura District Council as well as Blenheim Police inspector Simon Feltham looking for answers as to why they were left on the bus overnight.

Sutherland said there should be questions over the ''duty of care'' of agencies that should have been responsible for the passengers' safety.

Feltham said he had initially responded to his letter and would respond in full this week.

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He said the police had discussed the bus passengers situation with civil defence in a debrief after the storm.

''Realistically the situation the bus passengers were found in was very unfortunate but outside any single agency's control.''

He said communication infrastructure was down in the region, so it was difficult for different agencies responsible for responding to natural disasters, to keep in contact.

''It's difficult to see how we can remedy this, considering how much infrastructure damage was caused through the night of the storm.''

He said there were a ''huge number'' of calls to police across the top of the South Island, and believed Kaikoura police did an ''outstanding job'' in responding to them.

However, Feltham said they could not control the weather and what it caused.

Sutherland said the situation had left him with ''no confidence that there was a system in place to ensure the safety of people is adequately addressed in incidents like this.''

He believed one agency should have taken the lead role in managing an emergency response, including providing efficient communication with the public on the condition of the road.

''We are hoping John Key will find out why we were left in this perilous situation.''

Sutherland wanted to ensure a situation like his did not happen again.

He was told Air New Zealand was undertaking an internal investigation into the matter. Air New Zealand had refunded the passengers flight and also given them air points.

- The Nelson Mail

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