Lessons from Karikari tragedy

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HONOURED: Portraits of William Macrae (left) and John 'Prickles' de Ridder, with their posthumously awarded Far North District Council citizens' award pins.
HONOURED: Portraits of William Macrae (left) and John 'Prickles' de Ridder, with their posthumously awarded Far North District Council citizens' award pins.

A fire-fighting colleague of two men who died when their helicopter crashed into the sea off the Karikari Peninsula in 2011 hopes new standards will make battling scrub fires safer.

Almost five years after pilot John 'Prickles' de Ridder (69) and William Macrae (54) died, Coroner Brandt Shortland has released his inquest findings, saying the loss of two lives had been "unnecessary".

"These men lost their lives trying in some way to help others," he said.

Mr Shortland found that there was confusion in terms of communications, chaos and possible misinterpretation of the available information until command and control was established over fighting the blaze, the fatal crash highlighting the need for an extra level of safety in the overall planning strategy when using helicopters to fight fires.

The two men died when they went to assess the situation of people trapped on the beach by advancing flames, and had called 111.

"I accept there was emotional pressure brought to bear on the New Zealand Fire Service operator from those on the beach using the 111 emergency calls. These calls were stressful, resulting in a building up of emotional pressure and anxiety," Mr Shortland said.

Far North Principal Rural Fire Officer Myles Taylor, who was at the blaze when the helicopter crashed, said after reading Mr Shortland's report that many lessons had been learned, and there had been a change in the way scrub fires were tackled in the region.

"There is a huge responsibility on our shoulders to move forward and keep getting better," he added.

New standards that would come into force in September made the point that air operations would only function through an incident controller personally, which was the issue in the Karikari tragedy. The standards also encapsulated the importance of effective communication between the air division operation and the overall incident, highlighting the importance of risk management and analysis.

"The development of these standards is a huge step forward, and we have already implemented many of the things it recommends," Mr Taylor said.

"We now have a robust risk assessment policy for daytime and night time operations, which includes using aircraft. We are very conscious of managing these risks."

Meanwhile the two men were never far from their minds when the Far North firefighting fraternity were called to a scrub fire.

No one has ever been held responsible for the 2011 fire, which Mr Shortland said had put the safety of residents and property at risk. Mr de Ridder had flown over the fire with a monsoon bucket at 8.22pm, but stopped fighting the fire when conditions grew too dangerous.

Panicked residents trapped on the beach then began phoning emergency services, and an hour later the decision was made to take to the air for what was to have been a reconnaissance flight to assess the situation.

"Flying conditions had deteriorated to the point where Prickles had made a decision that he would no longer fly with the monsoon bucket, as it was too windy and conditions were dangerous," Mr Shortland a continued.

"It was at that point that he was contacted to pick up Mr Macrae so they could have a further look at the fire. It was accepted they were initially planning a reconnaissance flight.

"It is also at that point that they received, obviously, information that people were still trapped on the beach. It was getting dark. It was smoky, and it was well known that Prickles did not like to fly in smoke as it was simply dangerous. However, these two very experienced men, in a six to eight-minute discussion while they sat on the ground in the helicopter, must have considered all of those factors and then decided it was safe enough to have a look at the situation."

They had flown at low altitude beneath the cloud, close to sea level. At 9.38pm the helicopter was reported missing. A loud crash was heard by those trapped on the beach. The helicopter and its two crew were found in seven metres of water the next day by police divers, 680m from the shoreline.

Mr Shortland said it was more than likely that as they started towards the beach the flying conditions were acceptable. But the conditions changed dramatically with the rolling back of the smoke, which made for treacherous flying conditions, distorting the pilot's spatial orientation and resulting in the crash.

- Northland Age

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