Fatal gas explosion ripped families apart

By Lane Nichols

Rescue Services at the scene of the fatal explosion in Onehunga, Auckland. Photo / David Rowland
Rescue Services at the scene of the fatal explosion in Onehunga, Auckland. Photo / David Rowland

Ian Winson lost more than just his legs in a fatal explosion which claimed the life of his Watercare Services Ltd colleague - he lost happiness and the "pleasures" of life.

His employer, the Auckland City Council-owned wastewater company, was today fined $81,000 and ordered to pay $315,000 in reparations to the victims of the blast.

The company had previously pleaded guilty to two charges laid under the Health and Safety in Employment Act in relation to the June 4, 2011 explosion.

Leaking gas from the Vector network apparently ignited in an Onehunga waterpipe when a contractor fired up a blowtorch.

The explosion that ripped through the underground pipe killed Watercare employee Philomen Gulland, 48. Mr Winson, an engineer, suffered horrific injuries and later had both his legs amputated above the knee. Several other workers were injured.

Victims gave harrowing accounts of the tragedy's aftermath this morning before Judge Rob Ronayne at Auckland District Court.

Mr Winson sat silently in a wheelchair, but his wife Katherine read an emotional account of how the accident had robbed their family of a normal, happy life.

Her husband had undergone 18 major operations, his elbow was smashed into more than 100 pieces, he had undergone skin grafts, suffered a neck fracture and his middle finger was surgically removed.

Doctors said the former triathlete and keen runner only survived thanks to his fitness.

The couple have two young sons who are now frustrated their father can't play with them like he used to. Mr Winson nearly drowned when one of the boys jumped on him in a pool.

He grieved for the loss of his legs while watching other fathers play with their children. Their life would never be the same, Mrs Winson said.

"Ian had dreams of living a full and active life with the boys.

"It was one of our dreams to go back to dancing classes as a couple. Now we struggle to come to terms with this dream."

Philomen Gulland's mother Margaret Penner spoke of the terrible grief at losing her beloved daughter. Photo / APNZ
Philomen Gulland's mother Margaret Penner spoke of the terrible grief at losing her beloved daughter. Photo / APNZ

Ms Gulland's 80-year-old mother Margaret Penner spoke of her terrible grief.

"I'll never be able to replace or forget all the joy and laughter we shared. As a mother, the deep love we shared is still there. This forms a deep part of my loss."

Watercare paid for Mrs Penner to travel to New Zealand for her daughter's marae-based funeral. She was presented with a tiki.

"I have not been able to take it off."

Ms Gulland lost several limbs in the explosion and the back of her head was smashed in.

"My understanding was the blast from the explosion killed her."

Ms Gulland's teenage son's life had been "torn apart" by grief and anxiety, and her older daughter was hospitalised with chest pains after the accident.

Another victim, James Millard, told the court the explosion had devastated his life and the lives of his family.

He could no longer to do the things he enjoyed and was angry "at the person I have become".

"I feel like life is a sentence for me and for the other victims every single day. I feel guilty for living.

Mr Millard called for the court to send a clear message that "all workers should be safe in the workplace and that people's lives come first".

Judge Ronayne said Watercare had been aware of previous incidents of leaking gas in the area and that pipes were being replaced. The health and safety failings had cost Ms Gulland her life and left other workers maimed and suffering ongoing psychological effects.

"Mr Winson's disability and loss of life's pleasures are terrible and permanent."

He fined the company $81,000 and ordered reparation payments totalling $315,000, but admitted it was "an impossible task" to place monetary value on lost lives or survivors' injuries.

Contractor Canadian Pacific Limited (CPL) is defending two charges under the Health and Safety in Employment Act in relation to the blast.

Outside court, Watercare Services chief executive Mark Ford said he was "shattered" after listening to the victims' statements.

The company regretted the accident and accepted the financial penalties.

"It will of course never bring Philomen back.

"This is not something we can forget. We do sincerely hope today can bring some kind of closure to those affected by this accident."

Mrs Penner told reporters she was "very contented" with the outcome and New Zealand's justice process.

"It's not been an easy two years."

She believed the reparation amounts were fair but said "you can't put a price on a loss".

- APNZ

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