Kenya crash: Bethlehem College's report

By John Cousins

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David Fellows, the former Bethlehem College student who was driving the minibus in Kenya which crashed, killing three Tauranga people and a Kenyan, was encouraged to drive by Christopher Mmata, the official Kenyan driver of the trip who was killed in the crash.


 


 


College board of trustees chairman Greg Hollister-Jones told the Bay of Plenty Times that Mmata had encouraged students and ex-students to drive as part of their ``Kenyan experience'', and this had been allowed by some earlier tour group leaders.


 


Mr Hollister-Jones said they accepted that David Fellows was the driver of the mini-van, despite Kenyan police saying the driver was Christopher Mmata.


He said the college's partner in Kenya, Calvin Ominde, Mr Mmata's best friend, had believed that Christopher was the driver.


``He was the person on the ground with the influence.''


He said that in these situations, there was not always an easy intersection between circumstantial evidence and eye witness testimony.


``We received eye-witness accounts that David was the driver,'' Mr Hollister-Jones said.


The school's investigation into the crash that killed Tauranga couple Brian and Grace Johnston and 19-year-old former college pupil Caitlin Dickson concluded the school's systems to guide overseas trips had not been strong enough.


``We accept that and we are changing them,'' he said.


The investigation by a board of trustees subcommittee found three former or current students had driven vehicles during the tragedy-scarred 2012-13 trip.


It revealed the van which rolled and crashed into a ditch on January 15 was carrying two more people than its stated capacity and that despite having been made aware of Kenyan seat belt laws, a number of passengers were not wearing them.


Mr Hollister-Jones said while the college had always believed no students drove on trips, it was never stated in the management manual for trips. Students also drove on the 2010-11 trip to Kenya but this had never been communicated back to the school.


In future, students would not be allowed to drive on overseas trips and tour leaders must report any instances of misbehaviour, breaches of rules, and dangerous situations that had not been anticipated.


Bethlehem College is planning to send another volunteer mission to Kenya later this year, returning to the scene of the crash..


 


Mr Hollister-Jones said continuing the school's work at the Ark Quest Education Centre was what people wanted, even though the trips would never be the same again.


``So many lessons have been learned from this,'' Mr Hollister-Jones told the Bay of Plenty Times.


Mr Hollister-Jones said no disciplinary action would be taken against the tour leader and no one impacted by the tragedy was looking for scalps. No legal action was being taken against the college.


``No one wants retribution. What we have been through is a quiet process of reconciliation. Families made it clear from the outset that they were not about blame.''


He said families also made it clear that they wanted the trips to continue and the next trip to Kenya was planned for the end of this year. He indicated the tour director injured in the crash would be on the next trip.


Mr Hollister-Jones said Kenyan authorities had closed the file on the case and the school wanted to ``draw a line under the tragedy''


Families were grieving and young people continued to be affected, not only through their injuries but with trauma. Some had difficulty concentrating, he said.


A total of $34,500 has been raised to help Kenyans affected by the tragedy.


What the investigation said about students driving in Kenya and the events leading up to the crash -


``On the 2012/13 trip, prior to the fatal accident on January 15 [Kenyan time], three students drove vehicles at various times. Two occurred on 14 January. Once again this was encouraged and facilitated by Christopher Mmata resulting in discussion amongst the students that he was favourable to them driving.


``While the testimonies made it clear that some of the adult leaders were aware of the driving incidents, it is satisfied that the team leader was not aware.


``On January 15 the group visited the Vihiga District Commissioner and then the Gavalagi High School, travelling in a car and the school van. At the conclusion of the visit to the school at approximately 1pm, following a heavy rainstorm, the group set out on the return journey with Christopher Mmata driving the van.


``The road was wet and it was raining. Approximately 10 minutes into the journey, the van was stopped and a pre-arranged driver swap occurred. Both Christopher Mmata and David Fellows alighted from the vehicle and swapped seats.


 


 


``David Fellows had been seated immediately behind the driver. Two of the surviving adult leaders travelling in the van became aware of the driver swap but took no immediate action.


 


"This was because the team leader was seated in the front passenger seat and it was assumed that he would address the situation. The team leader took no action as he was asleep at the time and within minutes of setting off again, the accident occurred.


``It is of concern that there appears to have been a progression in the driving incidents starting from driving the van in the surrounding environs of the Ark Quest property, to driving a car to the local village, to driving the van with student passengers on a main road and culminating in driving the van with 17 persons including 5 adult leaders on board.


``This progression demonstrates an increasing confidence by the students in the acceptability of student driving, a result of Christopher's encouragement, and a mistaken belief by some of the leaders that driving by students was acceptable.


``The end result of this creep was that a driver swap occurred in the presence of the Team Leader, albeit while he was asleep.


``Whilst we accept that this was the first time student driving occurred in the team leader's presence, in light of the 2010/11 student driving incidents there should have been specific instructions to all team members and the Kenyan leaders that students were not to drive.


``The van in question was a 2005 model Toyota Hiace that had been recently imported. It was compliant with Kenyan requirements and was fitted with seats and seatbelts for 15 persons. The wearing of seatbelts is a requirement of Kenyan law and the team experienced police enforcement of that.


``It is of concern that at the time of the accident the van was two persons overloaded and most of the passengers were not wearing seatbelts.''

- Bay of Plenty Times

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