Gorge rescue hero denied compensation
SHANE COWLISHAW AND MATT STEWART
A former outdoor guide who was traumatised by helping to recover the bodies of the children from the Mangatepopo Gorge tragedy has lost his legal battle for ACC cover.
Peter Zimmer helped search for the six teenagers and their teacher who were lost in a flash flood in the gorge, near Turangi, in April 2008. He tried to resuscitate some, and later helped with the recovery of their bodies.
Elim Christian College year 12 pupils Natasha Bray, Portia McPhail, Tom Hsu, Anthony Mulder, Floyd Fernandes and Tara Gregory, and teacher Tony McClean, died during the canyon trip, organised by the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre.
At the inquest into their deaths, Zimmer, who was a contract instructor with the centre, said he had cancelled a trip with another group into the gorge, as he was concerned about the conditions.
When asked why he did not alert the other group to his concerns, Zimmer said it was a question that still bugged him. "It's a thought that has been in my head quite a lot."
After the incident, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and was left unable to work for at least two months as he recovered.
He applied to ACC for cover but was denied. At the time, only mental injuries that stemmed from a physical injury were covered under the ACC Act.
Six months after the Mangatepopo tragedy, the act was amended to allow claims from those affected by a traumatic incident.
Zimmer appealed, but in a newly published decision Judge David Ongley has upheld ACC's original ruling, because his injury happened before the law change.
Zimmer's appeal was also driven by his understanding that another rescuer who had also been affected had been accepted for legal cover.
"I still want to know how they could change the rules for this other person," he said last night.
"It's not right - I would have hoped ACC had some discretion. At the time it just felt like another slap in the face."
Andy Bray, father of Natasha, said Mr Zimmer was a high-calibre search and rescue officer and a "great guy", with whom the family had formed a close relationship.
"He found our daughter first and laid her lovingly on a rock - that's got to cut you really deep."
He accepted that ACC needed boundaries, but said he thought it would have been reasonable to award Zimmer compensation.
"It was a lot more than two months before I came right again, and I didn't have to wade through rivers and pluck corpses from the water."
The fact that the law had changed vindicated Zimmer's claim, he said.
Outdoor Pursuits Centre chief executive Graham Seatter said Zimmer - who now works for LandSar - was in an unfortunate situation where he had been left questioning whether anything he could have done would have made a difference.
ACC would not comment on the compensation award in the other rescuer's case. Judge Ongley's decision said it was discussed, but "in a legal context, that is not relevant to Mr Zimmer's claim".
He raised the possibility in his decision of a future complaint by Zimmer to the Ombudsman.
Zimmer said he could still not think of the events in the gorge without getting depressed. He was unlikely to appeal further, but would pursue the case through the Ombudsman.
- © Fairfax NZ News