The chief of army has apologised to the family of a soldier who drowned near Waiouru last year and admitted serious health and safety failures - opening the way for hefty fines and compensation.
Major General Dave Gawn met Private Michael Ross' family at the Papakura army camp last weekend. The emotion-charged meeting ran for an entire day and included a restorative justice session.
The army has pleaded guilty to a charge of failing to ensure Ross' safety and faces a fine of up to $250,000 when it is sentenced in the Auckland District Court on Thursday. Part of the fine is likely to go to Ross' family.
The Sunday Star-Times revealed in March that Ross, 29, drowned in Lake Moawhango last September after a series of catastrophic safety failures, including a faulty lifejacket. He had fallen out of an inflatable boat with about 20kg of equipment, including a machine gun.
His father, George Ross, said Gawn's statements to the family had helped reassure them that the army was moving to ensure it never happened again.
"He was very remorseful, as soon as he introduced himself he said he is completely devastated at what happened, it shouldn't have happened, he's got to get the army back to what it was, ‘it's safety, safety, safety and we've let that go out the window'."
The Star-Times understands four or five serving personnel will face internal disciplinary charges over the death, but George Ross said the family did not want heads to roll.
"The family has said we aren't that keen on individuals being charged because it's the army that's let us down, not the individuals. If anything we would rather support those guys and say it was the lack of health and safety and the culture."
A Defence Force spokesperson said a military police inquiry to determine whether any charges would be laid was still under way.
It is understood the Court of Inquiry report into the death includes up to 16 pages of recommendations, including lifejacket management.
A moratorium on small-boat manoeuvres is in place until the improvements have been made.
The Star-Times has learned that Ross was almost saved after he fell out of the boat. A safety boat arrived and the pilot lowered a hook over the side. Ross grabbed hold of it and the pilot tried to pull him to the back of the boat, but Ross couldn't hold on long enough.
George Ross said family members had been compiling victim impact statements for the sentencing. "The gist of mine is that we don't want his tragic death to be in vain - it's got to be fixed."
The inflatable boat with Ross on board was not properly inflated, making it unstable.
It crossed the lake without a safety boat, a breach of standing orders.
The exercise was over but the soldiers had not put their heavy gear in dry bags, a breach of standing orders.
The boat could not return to help Ross when he fell overboard because of engine trouble.
Ross could not inflate his lifejacket because the gas canister was empty.
It had been mistakenly placed with operable jackets instead of being sent for servicing.
The pilot of the safety boat rushed to the scene without a medic and diver, a breach of standing orders.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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