Life-jacket accident 'probably' behind Ross' death

MICHAEL FIELD AND SIMON DAY
Last updated 19:43 25/07/2013
Fairfax NZ

Spokesperson for the family of Private Michael Ross speaks outside court.

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A soldier who accidentally activated his life-jacket during training and then hid it among other life-jackets was "probably most likely" behind another accident that cost another soldier his life, a military Court of Inquiry has found.

Weighed down by 21.665 kilograms of gear including a machine gun around his neck, Private Michael Ross, 29, fell out of a poorly inflated Zodiac boat into bitterly cold Lake Moawhango, near Waiouru, on September 25 last year.

Another soldier managed to grab him by his helmet, but he slipped below the surface and drowned.

When the body was later recovered it was found that the carbon dioxide canister attached to his life jacket was empty.

Chief of Army General David Gawn says the tragedy was shameful and embarrassing and he felt sorrow over a needless death.

"I felt a sense of shame.... We have failed every parent in New Zealand who entrusts their son or daughter to the army."

He said the failings were mostly systemic rather than individual.

Vice Chief of Defence Force Major General Tim Keating said the consequences are not over and charges could yet be laid against individuals over Ross' death.

Although soldiering was dangerous, the army did not accept in any way that people should expect to get hurt.

The army released a redacted copy of the inquiry report on the same day the Defence Force pleaded guilty to Auckland District Court Judge Stephen O'Driscoll to a Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) health and safety charge.

Although the charge carries a $250,000 fine it cannot be levied against the army as it is a branch of the crown.

But the court heard that the military had taken part in a restorative justice process with the Ross family and had paid them $240,000, made up of $85,000 from the army, $141,000 in army life insurance and $15,000 in funeral and associated expenses.

Judge O'Driscoll will sentence the Defence Force and assess culpability in a written judgment to be delivered next week.

Outside court Ross family spokesperson Charles Hohaia said they were grateful the army had been transparent and that the shortcomings and systemic failures were acknowledged.

"I guess the reparation is a symbolic token of some restorative process, it is never going to bring Michael back, no amount of money can. That has never been the most important part in our journey," said Hohaia.

As the District Court sat, the army released its own inquiry findings.

It was similar to MBIE's statement of facts, noting that the Zodiac had been under-inflated after a day of exercises.

On the way across the lake the Zodiac's bow flexed and Ross was thrown into the water.

The inquiry report said the life-jack Ross had been wearing had been found not to have a serviceable gas canister attached to it.

It offered three scenarios to explaining it, ranging from saying it had been wrongly certified by maintenance personnel to an accidental activation and not being noticed. These were regarded as unlikely.

Most likely was that one of the life jacket was inadvertently activated.

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"Believing that he may get into trouble, the soldier responsible may have deflated the life jacket, repacked it and place it with all the other jackets."

The court also found the whole movement across the lake breached orders over a range of behaviours with the boats.

In MBIE's summary of facts they said the soldiers "were too tired and just wanted to get back across the lake at the end of the training session."

Against orders, Ross was wearing a machine gun across his front with the sling around his neck.

As they headed across the lake their Zodiac was slow and was overtaken and affected by other boat wakes.

Ross fell in.

"Eyewitnesses described Private Ross as not looking panicked at this stage," the summary says adding soldiers yelled at him to deploy his floatation device.

Efforts were made to get him and at one point he held onto a boat hook. But as they reached him, he sank.

"The coxswain managed to grab Private Ross' helmet but it became dislodged from Private Ross who was sinking deeper," the summary said.

Gawn said the other soldiers had received counselling.

"Losing a mate, you train with for 24/7, that you live with is traumatic, particularly in circumstances where it was needless."

The soldiers would have felt they had let him down.

"Soldiers are resilient, but it takes time for family to come to terms with what has occurred...They are back to soldiering as Michael would expect them to be."

He said all soldiers needed to accept a safety culture and should speak out over unsafe activity.

While the inquiry had noted a soldier feared to speak out about accidentally inflating a life-jacket, Gawn said they had to, "that is part of moral courage."

- Stuff

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