Propeller tragedy horrifies witnesses

AMY MAAS AND ROB KIDD
Last updated 05:00 09/02/2014

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Horrified witnesses to a diving tragedy where a man was mutilated by a boat propeller were so traumatised they met last night to comfort each other.

Aucklander Bruce Porter, 56, was on the diving trip at Tutukaka, 30km east of Whangarei, with a group of friends from the Western Underwater Dive Club who chartered the 16.5m catamaran Pacific Hideaway, skippered by owner Mark Barnes.

The accident occurred at the entrance of the Poor Knights Islands about 7pm on Friday. Police said Porter sustained serious facial injuries when he was struck by a propeller.

It is understood he was conscious when dragged onboard the vessel but died soon afterwards, and resuscitation attempts by Coastguard volunteers from Tutukaka were unsuccessful.

Diane Garaway, who was on the boat, said the group met last night to support each other but she was too traumatised to discuss what she saw.

"I'm in shock. At the moment we're coming together as the group of friends we are, and just trying to support each other," she said.

"That's what we've agreed to and that's how we all feel. It's very fresh."

It is understood Porter, a civil engineer from Nottingham, England, came to New Zealand with his wife Jill and settled in Greenhithe on Auckland's North Shore.

A friend and former dive partner, Cameron Smirk, said Porter had children in the UK and described his death as "a sad loss".

"He was a great guy," he said. "It was a shock to everyone."

Another member of the Western Underwater Dive Club, who declined to be named, described Porter as a passionate diver since joining five years ago. He was a pleasure to dive with and a pleasure to be around.

"My wife and I developed a close bond with Bruce and we'll feel his loss for a long time to come."

Police will now investigate the death on behalf of the coroner alongside Maritime New Zealand. A spokeswoman said it usually took several months for reports to be completed.

It is rare for police to make a decision over whether charges will be laid until Maritime NZ completes its investigation.

Denise Barnes, wife of the skipper, said they too were traumatised.

"It's very tragic and it's not really the time or the place for us [to talk about it] at the moment," she said.

The local kaumatua blessed the Pacific Hideaway yesterday and a three-day rahui (restriction) had been placed on the scene of the accident by another company, Dive! Tutukaka.

Owner Kate Malcolm said boating accidents were rare in the Poor Knights Islands.

"As far as I know it was an all-round tragedy. We're a close-knit community here in Tutukaka so we're all affected," she said.

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"The skipper is taking it very hard, as you do. I don't think there was any fault on anyone's part, it was just a tragedy. That will come out eventually, I'm sure. But at the moment it's just about taking time and taking stock.

"The operators are well-known and well-liked and very respectful, there's no cowboys out here."

Association of Diving Contractors vice-president and skipper Brendon Cappely said it would not be clear who was at fault until investigations were carried out, but maritime law required all skippers to take precautions.

Skippers had to maintain a proper lookout and had to manoeuvre their vessel safely. This meant staying below five knots when within 50m of divers and within 200m of a vessel displaying a dive flag, he said.

"But an accident like this could happen when you are going very, very slowly. There are a lot of factors out there. This sounds like very, very bad luck."

Divers were also expected to keep a lookout and not surface close to boats.

- Sunday Star Times

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