Tracing tragedy still a minefield for Waikato parents

IN THE DARK: Mike Todd and Jan Gilby lost their son, Ben in Croatia in 2009. They believe there needs to be a system set up to help grieving families when a loved one has been killed overseas. 
IN THE DARK: Mike Todd and Jan Gilby lost their son, Ben in Croatia in 2009. They believe there needs to be a system set up to help grieving families when a loved one has been killed overseas. 

Jan Gilby and Mike Todd still don't know what they would do if they were forced to repeat the tragic circumstances of October 8, 2009.

Their son, Ben Gilby-Todd, 23 at the time, had been living and working in England, but gone for a sailing holiday in Croatia with his younger brother, Tom.

The parents were sharing a delightful stroll through Chartwell Square. But at 8pm their world changed forever.

Tom, who was 18, called them from Croatia and told them the devastating news. Ben had been riding pillion on a motorbike on the island of Korcula. Tom went to identify his body.

"Of course it completely stops your life in its tracks," Mr Todd said.

From there the night became frantic. There was no information. They called the New Zealand Police - nothing, but the sergeant had a friend in Internal Affairs.

They called Internal Affairs - they didn't know anything either. There is no New Zealand consulate in Croatia.

Next the couple were put on to the New Zealand consulate in Rome, who gave them a number for someone in Croatia. But there was no luck there either.

"He was very hard to understand and he didn't have any information anyway," Mr Todd said.

"We just puddled on trying to find out what happened ourselves," Mrs Gilby added.

It wasn't until 9.30am the next day that they had any snippet of information as to what had happened to their son.

Their ordeal is shared by dozens of Kiwi families every year.

Figures released to Fairfax Media by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs show that in the near 10 months to September 25, 2013, 154 New Zealanders were killed overseas.

That is up from 143 for the full 2012 year and 132 for the full 2011.

The figures come just days after Wellington mother-of-two Lynn Howie and her British partner were shot and killed on a beach in Libya's Zawiya District on Thursday.

The ministry is warning against all travel to the region with a "high to extreme" risk to security due to terrorism and kidnappings.

Figures show more Kiwis die in Australia than any other country, but that is due to the large number who live there.

Thailand - a popular destination particularly among younger New Zealanders - is second on the list.

Eighteen New Zealanders were killed in Thailand in the 2013 year to September 25.

More than 115,000 Kiwis travelled there.

New Zealand's ambassador to Thailand Tony Lynch said the post was one of the ministry's busiest for a range of reasons - "either a mix of the complexity of the issues or just the volume of cases we have to deal with".

"I wouldn't say Thailand is any more dangerous than anywhere else, but it's a matter of the volume of tourists that come through and the demographic factor," he said.

"We get a lot of younger New Zealanders out to explore Asia - they are probably a bit more innocent, and . . . engage in riskier behaviour."

This time of the year was considered peak season, and while helping hapless Kiwis was only a small fraction of the work the embassy carried out, it was an important part.

Two consul staff handled all requests for help, with one of those employed by the ministry being a local Thai.

"You need the language to be able to navigate through the Thai bureaucracy and with Thai authorities," he said.

But freak accidents can happen anywhere, and Mr Todd and Mrs Gilby think the processes once those accidents happen needs to be reviewed.

Police should be involved and parents should be called, they say.

Four years later, they still don't really know how their son died, or what happened to the driver of the motorbike - other than the eight-page-long letter they received from him after Mrs Gilby sent one to him.

"Finding out about the court case . . . we just gave up."

They are still clueless as to what the system is, and what it should be and they hold great empathy for any family that has to get information about a relative lost overseas.

"There was just a whole breakdown in all of the processes," Mrs Gilby said.

There needs to be information readily available, they said, such as a page in the phonebook, or available on Google.

Had it not been for the support of their own family and friends around the globe along with Ben's employers, Deloitte, the Hamilton parents say they would have been "stuffed".

Deloitte shipped in a team of Ben's friends and colleagues to deal with the mortuary and the authorities. It took 14 days to get Ben's body home.

"We were lucky," Mr Todd said. "I've heard of another person that was four-and-a-half weeks."

"It was a nightmare, but it could have been so much worse," Mrs Gilby said. 

Waikato Times