Topec: will it become a victim too?

Last updated 08:31 25/08/2012
Robert Charles Zoom
On August 8, Spotswood College students Stephen Kahukaka-Gedye and Felipe Melo, both 17, and their Taranaki Outdoor Pursuits and Education Centre instructor Bryce Jourdain, 42, were swept out to sea while climbing around Paritutu rock.
Andy Jackson Zoom
On August 8, Spotswood College students Stephen Kahukaka-Gedye and Felipe Melo, both 17, and their Taranaki Outdoor Pursuits and Education Centre instructor Bryce Jourdain, 42, were swept out to sea while climbing around Paritutu rock. 10 others were winched off the rocks by the Taranaki Rescue Helicopter
tdn rock stand
Spotswood College students wait to be rescued from Paritutu Rock after three of their number were swept away.
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It was supposed to be a silver celebration year. But instead of toasting a quarter century of outdoor adventure, challenge and the memories of the 27,000 students, Topec is dealing with death.

The lives lost belonged to 17-year-old Spotswood College students Felipe Martins De Melo, of Brazil, and Stephen Kahukaka- Gedye, and their Topec instructor Bryce Jourdain, 42. The trio drowned after a climbing exercise on New Plymouth's Paritutu rock went disastrously wrong 18 days ago.

Felipe's funeral will be held today, six days after the sea gave up his body just a few hundred metres from where he went in.

The bodies of Stephen and Bryce are still to be found, their absence prolonging both an already harrowing experience and the uncertainty surrounding Topec's future.

Why the climbers died, why the school group was on the rock on that day, at that time, and how the students came to fall into a sea of such terrific ferocity are now the subject of three investigations: by police, Labour Department and Topec itself.

These could take weeks, months, possibly years, and even before the investigations began the whispered fear was that this tragedy would spell the end of Topec, the end of adventure for Taranaki teenagers.

For seven years Don Patterson worked as assistant director at the centre and by the time he left in 2000 had led thousands of students on the same Paritutu traverse now burdened with three lives.

"Topec needs to carry on," he says. "If you ask anyone under 30 about their outdoors experiences, with most of them it's about Topec. I think it's really important it keeps going."

As well as the physical aspect of adventure there is a social component, he says. Kids learn to co-operate, develop leadership skills and gain confidence from facing risk and coming out on top.

"You can't gain anything unless you take a risk really. That's the big thing. To be able to have students in a situation like that where they have so much to gain.

"One accident in one place doesn't make everything unsafe."

With a history encompassing 25 years and 27,000 students Topec had become Taranaki's own acronym for adventure. And that so many students had passed through its doors elevated the three deaths from a tragic misfortune to a community-wide trauma.

How the incident has affected Topec itself is easy to guess, but impossible to know. Its website has been pulled and a cone of silence has gone up around the centre since the deaths. Requests to even talk about this article with Topec director Steve Ralph or Topec board chairman David Grigg have proved fruitless.

"I imagine the staff are in shock right now as well," says Outdoors New Zealand chairman Alexander Brunt. "They are grieving. Outdoor centres operate as a family. You spend more time with your colleagues than you do with your family.

"They would be dealing with loss, uncertainty about their future, and the impact the incident would have on families of the victims and the outdoor sector as a whole."

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This isn't the first or even the worst example of death in the outdoors. In 1995 the collapse of a viewing platform over Cave Creek in Paparoa National Park killed 13 Tai Poutini Polytechnic students and a Conservation Department officer.

Four years ago six Elim Christian School students and a teacher on a Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre (OPC) course drowned while canyoning in the Mangatepopo Gorge.

Both sites are now synonymous with death and the price paid for mistakes made in an unforgiving environment.

OPC's mistakes cost them $480,000 in Labour Department fines and reparation to families of the victims and survivors of the tragedy. A coroner's report recommended wide-ranging changes and an independent review found the centre lacking in a number of areas, including inadequate design and development of the centre's adventure challenge programme, failure to maintain staff with sufficient instructing experience, deficiencies in the identification and management of hazards, and a lack of institutional memory because of high staff turnover.

These findings came despite the centre passing an Outdoors New Zealand safety audit on the day of the accident, the same type of audit Topec passed last month.

Since the incident OPC's safety systems have been completely overhauled and memorials built to ensure the reasons behind the changes will not be forgotten, says OPC's chief executive Graham Seatter.

"It will have a lasting impact," he says. "We brought family and friends and people connected back when we unveiled the memorials earlier this year. And that was hard, but it's entirely appropriate for our organisation to be continually reminded of what happened."

Despite the scale of the tragedy, OPC didn't stop operating, even temporarily, as Topec has, however the gorge remains out of bounds to OPC groups.

In a statement to this paper the Taranaki secondary principals' representative on Topec's governing board, Hans Konlechner, stopped short of calling for the centre to continue after the deaths.

However Mr Konlechner, Hawera High School principal, did say the community would be poorer without outdoor educational opportunities.

"Topec's programmes also give students a meaningful context in which to learn to organise, solve problems, work as part of a team and persevere with challenging tasks. Students get to make decisions and learn that all decisions have consequences. These are important life skills," he wrote.

New Plymouth Girls' High School principal Jenny Ellis is of the same mind, having seen hundreds of students benefit from their Topec experience. She has no problem saying what must happen.

"We want students to continue to go to Topec. We want our relationship with them to continue," she says.

"Tragedies do happen but that in itself is not a reason to stop offering these challenges. There are lessons that will be learnt but we must carry on."


TSB Taranaki Outdoor Pursuits and Education Centre (Topec)

Established in 1986.

Runs week long courses for up to 1200 Taranaki high school students a year.

27,000 people have been through the centre since it opened.

Students participate in activities such as kayaking, rock climbing, mountaineering, camping, swimming and rafting.

A non-profit organisation is run by a board headed by David Grigg and funded by grants, the TSB community Trust and student fees.

It is thought to have about six employees including director Steve Ralph.


A timeline to tragedy

1986: Taranaki Outdoor Pursuits and Education Centre is established at YMCA's Camp Huinga at the meeting of the waters just outside New Plymouth.

1994: TSB community trust pledges $25,000 a year to Topec to subsidise secondary school course costs. 

1995: A Department of Conservation officer and 13 outdoor recreation students of from Tai Poutini Polytechnic in Greymouth are killed when a viewing platform overlooking Cave Creek in Paparoa National Park collapses.

1995:  Commission of Inquiry into platform collapse says blames a combined systemic failure against the background of an underfunded and underresourced Department of Conservation. 

1997: Topec reaches the 10,000 student milestone.

1998: Rebecca Hartley-Smith is rescued by an instructor after a rogue wave washes her off Paritutu Rock where she is climbing with a Topec group.

2001: Six Topec staff on a sailing training day off Ngamotu Beach are rescued after their boat capsizes and fills with water. All were wearing life-jackets.

2005: Topec reaches the 20,000 student milestone.

2008: Six Elim Christian School students and one teacher drown on a Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Course while canyoning in the Mangatepopo gorge.

2010: Coroners report into OPC Mangatepopo deaths says complacency and an underestimation of the risks by OPC were among a list of factors that contributed to the deaths.

2011: Topec receives $314,950 from TSB Community Trust to build eco-leadership lodge.

2012: Topec celebrates its 25th birthday.

08 August: Spotswood College pupils Stephen Lewis Kahukaka-Gedye, 17,and Felipe Melo, 17,  fall into rough seas during a rock climbing activity at Paritutu Rock. Topec instructor Bryce John Jourdain, 42,  jumps into water to rescue the two men. Rescue crews fail to find the men.

19 August: The body of Felipe is found in the water intake at the Contact power station just 200m north of where he went into the water.

25 August: Felipe Melo's funeral to be held at Spotswood College in New Plymouth. 

- Taranaki Daily News

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