Topec has played its part in tragedy. Now its leaders are keen to rebuild lost trust. Ryan Evans reports.
Restoring its relationship with the people of Taranaki is Topec's No 1 priority in the aftermath of the Paritutu tragedy, its leaders say.
Since last year's disaster, in which three people died after falling into heavy seas when a traverse of Paritutu rock went wrong, the Taranaki outdoor institution has stayed mostly silent, limiting its comment to brief media statements.
But this week, Topec opened up to the Taranaki Daily News, in the first face-to-face interview the leaders of the organisation have granted a media outlet.
Topec director Steve Ralph and chairman David Grigg say the organisation is committed to meeting the payments ordered by the court, but remain confident it will remain a viable institution.
It won't be easy.
In sentencing, the court ordered emotional harm reparation of $269,500 to the families of both victims and survivors but did not impose fines, for fear it would bring Topec to its knees.
In its submissions to the court, the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment did not call for a fine.
In coming to his decision on the reparation payments, Judge Gerard Lynch said he took a mid-level between the Pike River coal mine and the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre prosecutions.
A total of $3.4 million was ordered in reparation to the 29 families of those who died in November 2011 at Pike River and the survivors. The arguments as to whether it will be paid by a company in receivership are ongoing.
And for the Elim Christian College and staff who died in a flash flood in the Mangatepopo Gorge on April 15, 2008, the outdoor pursuit centre was fined $40,000, in addition to $480,000 to both the families of those who died and the survivors.
Mr Ralph said the lack of a fine was no cause for celebration.
"We believe we've been given an opportunity to make things right, so we have to look to the future.
"Our healing began when the first group back arrived and the place was filled with kids and laughter.
"It was tough for us at the time but that's what we're all about, the kids and a passion for the outdoors.
"We live in a special place and we see ourselves as being an important part of that and Taranaki schools have shown they believe that to be an important part for them as well."
Central to the organisation's future is rebuilding the trust - with the people of Taranaki, the schools and the funders, he says.
As part of that effort to restore trust, the pair have been trying to meet face-to-face with those affected, although with mixed success.
"We've made efforts to do that and we're committed to doing that.
"It's got to be at a time that's appropriate for everybody. We would have hoped it would have happened by now," he says.
Stephen Kahukaka-Gedye's father Bruce Gedye told the court of his anger that his family was not offered a restorative justice meeting with Topec.
Taranaki Restorative Justice Trust chairman Senior Sergeant Malcolm Greig responds that the trust is working through the preliminary issues so that meeting can go ahead.
"The preferable outcome is for a restorative justice conference to take place," Mr Greig says.
But one thing is not up for negotiation. At least for the time being. Topec has no plans to return to the Paritutu traverse as part of its activities.
And the centre has begun reviewing many aspects of its operations, Mr Ralph said.
"We know we've been under intense scrutiny, from the ministry, from the police, and we've also undertaken our own investigation.
"The ministry had the ability to shut us down but they have found that what happened wasn't a systemic failure across our whole operation.
"But for us to sit on our hands wouldn't be appropriate.
"We've taken significant steps to strengthen our operation, and not just as it relates to Paritutu."
These steps include reviews of the safety management systems and looking specifically at activities that have been around for a number of years, and activities that take place at height or over water.
The organisation's weather information systems and their effectiveness are being looked at, as is staff safety. Training has been given around decision-making in the field.
The ministry's findings as to who was at fault at Paritutu are disturbingly similar to what happened in the Mangatepopo Gorge 13 years ago.
At the time, the now defunct Department of Labour said the OPC should have known of the risk of a flash flood because of the heavy rain falling that day.
The OPC should have subscribed to the MetService weather warning service or kept an eye on its website for weather warnings on the day. If they had done so they would have picked up three severe weather warnings, the DOL said.
Similarly, Topec should have been checking the publicly available swell website or the MetService where the high swells experienced on the day had been predicted several days before, the ministry says.
Mr Ralph says he did not believe complacency was ever the cause.
"We have and we still have a strong safety culture," he says.
Mr Grigg would not say whether any individual staff members had left the organisation as a result of the investigations.
"The board has accepted responsibility for what happened. The board is accountable.
"We're not going to specifically talk about individuals. We're confident in our staff, we support our staff and we value our staff."
Inevitably, facing the prospect of paying out nearly $270,000 will be another major focus.
"We're committed to meeting those responsibilities," Mr Ralph says.
"It comes back to our focus on doing what's right for those families and the right thing to do. Whatever the court had decided, that would've been the right thing to do."
That includes looking at alternative sources of income, tightening up the operation and possibly cutting the number of activities offered.
"We could look to reduce costs that way. There are significant compliance demands, whether that's financial or time.
"We are a not-for-profit charity and that's a core of what we do.
"Finance has always been something we've focused on. We want to provide high quality with low cost, but of course without any compromises to safety."
Mr Grigg said it had been the support of the people of Taranaki that had given them the courage to keep going and make things work.
"Through all this we remain very respectful to the families affected and it remains a part of our hearts and our energies. It's ongoing and will be for the future."
TIMELINE TO TRAGEDY
What happened on August 8 last year before and during Topec's tragic Paritutu traverse is outlined in the summary of facts presented to the New Plymouth District Court.
It is the first time the details of that day have been made public. And it is a sobering read.
Documents put before the court reveal the group was not even supposed to be at Paritutu. Topec had planned a river kayak. Ironically it was called off. Deemed too dangerous because of high river levels.
Attention then turned to Paritutu.
The party comprised Topec instructor Bryce Jourdain and unpaid trainee Vimalo Passmann; foreign students Joao Felipe Martins de Melo, 16, Joao Paulo Avila, 16, Marcus Mello, 17, Marina Ippolito, 16, and Gustavo De Olivera, 16, of Brazil, Janos Wichterich, 17, and Marlene Steinbach, 14, of Germany, Daria Kuehne, 16, from Switzerland, and Linquing Qiu, 17, from China; and local students Stephen Kahukaka-Gedye, 17, and Campbell Shaw, 17.
9.40am: The group starts pumping up inflatable kayaks for the river trip. Mark Dickie, Topec's lead outdoor instructor, is unhappy with the forecast rain indicating rivers could rise. He advises instructor Bryce Jourdain not to go on the river trip. They head instead for Paritutu.
At some point before leaving for Paritutu, Mr Jourdain has checked the Port Taranaki website swell information, which said "0.82 metres 14 knot wind NNW high tide of 1.43pm and tide height of 3m".
11am: Mr Jourdain signs out on the Topec white board noting an expected return from Paritutu at 1pm. Both instructors are aware that high tide is at 1.43pm and that the group is slow.
"The indecisiveness around deciding on the activities meant that when they finally decided on the traverse and left at 11am it was too late to be able to complete the traverse from Back Beach to the [New Plymouth] Power Station and be off at least an hour before high tide as set down in Topec's safety policies," the summary says.
11.30am: The group reaches the start of the traverse. Mr Jourdain rigs up mid/high tide access section, taking five minutes. It takes an additional 35-40 minutes for the group to climb a difficult section. The waves coming in are already wetting the legs of some of the students.
12.10pm: The second high-level traverse is roped up. It is rarely used and only when water is so high the usual lower access is not possible.
The group traverses over Nesting Rock, opposite Arch Rock, back on to the normal route 10-15 metres from the Three Steps staging point. As they come around the point opposite Arch Rock into the building north-westerly wind it starts to rain and the swell is bigger.
At this point Mr Jourdain tells Topec intern Vimalo Passmann they "shouldn't have come". But getting off at Back Beach is possibly not an option due to the increased tide.
12.35pm: The group waits at the staging point, a large flat shelf where students can stand. Mr Jourdain starts rigging the Three Steps area.
12.45pm: He makes a call to Topec on the radio to advise they will return an hour late. He says "the swell's a bit big" but they hear no unease or concern in his voice.
At this time, Mr Dickie realises Mr Jourdain is now operating outside the standard operating procedure. (Topec's policy requires groups to be off the rock within one hour of high tide in a swell of up to 1.5m, and within two hours of a swell up to 2m. If the swell is greater than 2m it is cancelled.)
1pm: The group complete the Three Steps traverse.
Mr Jourdain decides to take them one by one to the cave traverse. He does not rig a rope to clip them on. He puts himself between the group at "the ladder", a vertical climb of 2.5m. He is not anchored himself. The students have to move quickly between the waves.
During Marlene's turn, Mr Jourdain misjudges the timing. A big wave comes in and wets everything. Because of the height of the waves the group has to move up the face of the rock to avoid being hit.
1.15pm: Mr Jourdain rigs the cave traverse using a 50-metre rope. He does not rig up a rope from the staging point to the start of the cave traverse, even though the 50m rope would have covered this area. He decides to take two at a time from the staging point to the rigged cave traverse, an unroped section 12.5m long around a bend.
Students have to move quickly and wait for a break in the waves. First to go around the bend are Campbell and Stephen. Clipping on to the rigging is difficult. Campbell is first to clip on, then Stephen. Mr Jourdain climbs back to get Felipe and Janos.
A wave pushes Campbell into the rock and he loses his footing. He is left dangling on the rope.
When he gathers himself he stands up and realises Stephen isn't there.
The same wave also crashes over Felipe and Janos, who are making their way towards the rigging to clip on.
Janos doesn't see it coming. It covers his whole body and pushes him against the rocks. Felipe loses a shoe. The two continue climbing towards Campbell. When they see him around the corner he is screaming at them: "Stephen is gone, Stephen is gone".
Janos can't reply: a second wave hits the two. They are not clipped on to the rigging.
He falls into the water but manages to climb back on to the rock to a flat area above Campbell. He stays there unclipped until he is rescued by the helicopter.
1.20pm: Neither Janos nor Campbell can see Felipe or Stephen.
Mr Jourdain comes into view. Both yell out to him: "Two people are in the water". The next thing they see is Mr Jourdain in the water.
Mr Passmann realises something has gone wrong but at this point the group is unaware two of the students have been washed into the sea. Mr Jourdain is in the water for about 3-5 minutes before an emergency call is made.
1.23pm: The alarm is raised by Mr Passmann, who calls the police from a student's phone.
1.40pm: Police arrive.
1.43pm: Full tide.
2.04pm: The Taranaki Community Rescue Helicopter arrives. The helicopter airlifts 10 survivors from the rock one at a time and the search continues for three people lost in the water.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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