Families speak of Fox crash grief
Relatives of the victims of the Fox Glacier plane crash have told an inquest of their grief and anger.
The inquest into the crash on September 4, 2010, opened in Greymouth today.
Those killed were Skydive New Zealand director and tandem dive master Rod Miller, 55, of Greymouth, pilot Chaminda Senadhira, 33, of Queenstown, and dive masters Adam Bennett, 47, from Australia but living in Motueka, Michael Suter, 32, from New Plymouth, and Christopher McDonald, 62, of Mapua.
The four dead tourists, who had been touring the West Coast on a Kiwi Experience bus trip, were Patrick Byrne, 26, of Ireland, Glenn Bourke, 18, of Australia, Annika Kirsten, 23, of Germany, and Brad Coker, 24, of England.
Family members of many of the dead addressed the court, some criticising New Zealand's aviation industry and regulations for failing to ensure their loved one's safety.
A letter by German backpacker Annika Kirsten's parents, Susanne and Werner Schmidt-Kirsten, was read to the court and expressed their agony at losing their only child.
They said their ''beautiful and talented daughter'' was burnt to death when the plane exploded into a fireball when it crashed.
Her camera was retrieved from the wreckage and the photos were developed, the last one of her in a skyjumping suit just before the jump.
They learnt of the crash when reading a newspaper that had a small article about the Canterbury earthquake and briefly mentioned a plane crash had killed nine people, including someone from their German home town.
They said she was due to return home on October 3 but instead her ashes arrived in an urn on September 18.
Her parents had encouraged her to travel to New Zealand, thinking it was a safe country.
Since the crash, they had suffered post-traumatic stress syndrome.
''Together with our daughter, we lost our future, our sense of life and our hope.''
They blamed the Civil Aviation Authority for failing to adequately supervise the industry, and Skydive New Zealand for acting negligently.
''In the name of our daughter, we ask the responsible people who are still alive to stand up to their responsibility and to tell the truth about their negligence in the inquest.''
Wellington Crown solicitor Grant Burston, who is assisting the coroner for the inquest, read a letter by Bradley Coker's parents, who called the crash preventable.
They noted the Government had introduced extra controls on skydiving as a result of the crash.
''However lack of regulation is not the cause of the crash,'' they said in the letter.
''There have been without doubt major failings by the Civil Aviation Authority and there were major failings by the aircraft operators.''
It had been flown out of balance and overloaded 75 times, which meant such an accident was an ''inevitable certainty'', they said.
They called for law changes to ensure ''proper responsibility'' to those who were involved, saying there was no accountability in New Zealand.''
Bradley and his girlfriend Hayley had been travelling the world together and their engagement was expected on their return to England.
Adam Bennett's mother, Pamela, told the inquest it was hard for her family to express their grief over their loss.
An adventurous man, Bennett was a base jumper as well as a skydiver and mountaineer.
''He always said skydiving and base jumping were safe, extreme but safe.''
When he died, many said he was doing what he loved, she said.
Meanwhile, aviation expert Barry Payne, who wrote a report on the crash, told the inquest the plane's aircraft manual was inadequate for its use in skydiving, particularly in working out its centre of gravity.
He described the aircraft's earlier conversion from a topdressing plane into a skydiving plane, saying the aircraft manual was more suitable for its former use.
Safety critical information, such as the weight and balance data, should have been corrected in its manual when the CAA certified it for skydiving after the conversation.
A report from the Transport Accident Investigation Commission in May highlighted similar concerns.
New Zealand Parachute Industry Association chief executive Keith Gallaher was also questioned about its controls over skydiving operators.
He said the best way it could regulate skydiving was to issue members certificates to ensure they met its standards.
It had no concerns with Skydive New Zealand.
He said the centre-of-balance problems raised by the TAIC's report in May were not well understood by pilots before the crash.
Gallaher raised concerns about the CAA introducing compulsory restraints for skydiving, saying these were potentially dangerous and were designed as crash restraints to stop people moving forward in a crash.
Instead, he believed load restraints rather than crash restraints would be more effective in stopping movement in the plane by skydiving, addressing the potential centre-of-balance problem.
The inquest is expected to run all week.
Coroner Richard McElrea said the inquest, nearly two years after the crash, had been delayed for other ''investigative processes'' and it would take several months for written findings to be released.
The coroner acknowledged the presence of many family members present at court as well as those overseas who could watch the proceedings via live streaming on the Justice Ministry website.
It was the first time the case would be considered in the public arena and central to it was the crash's cause and skydiving regulations or rules.
The coroner said various threads that culminated in ''this calamitous event'' would be examined at the inquest.
''Inevitably, much of the evidence at the hearing will seem to be very distant from the fact that a pilot, four tandem masters and four young adults, each visitors to this country, have died in this way.''
He said those who died in the crash were a diverse and talented group of individuals, and he expressed condolences to their family and friends.
The crash occurred less than nine hours after Christchurch's magnitude-7.1 quake, which overshadowed the tragedy at the time.
The inquest can be watched on the internet via a live-streaming link on the coronial services website.
- © Fairfax NZ News
Would you like to see a bike-share scheme in Christchurch?Related story: Free bikes plan for Christchurch