OPC missed warnings which could have prevented tragedy (+photos)

By Elizabeth Binning, Alanah Eriksen, Edward Gay, James Ihaka, Brooke Donovan, Alanah May Eriksen

Questions are being asked why the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre (OPC) didn't heed heavy rain warnings which could have prevented the deaths of seven people in the Mangatepopo River yesterday.

MetService Forecast manager Peter Kreft told One News an "explicit" heavy rain warning was sent out at 8.29am yesterday.

"This particular warning included explicit mention that people needed to be aware of rapidly rising rivers and streams as a consequence of very high hourly rainfall rates expected in some areas," Mr Kreft said.

The Radio Network's weather analyst Philip Duncan supported that stance
saying a warning of flash flooding had been issued for regions from Taupo northwards, along with lightning warnings.

But OPC chief executive Dr Grant Davidson said his staff never received the MetService warnings.

"We didn't receive the information. We subscribe to a met fax service .. that met fax arrives in time for a briefing of staff at 8 o'clock in the morning," Dr Davidson said.

"The met fax that was released to us at 6.15 had none of that information on."

The OPC also confirmed the instructor leading the group had been in the job for just three months.

The Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre (OPC) employee survived the flash flood that caused the water level in the Mangatepopo Stream to rapidly rise.

Six students and one teacher died in what was described as a flash flood on the river in the Tongariro National Park.

The grief-stricken instructor was sheltered from the news media today, but Dr Davidson said she was a competent, qualified outdoor pursuits instructor with a physical education degree and post-graduate certificate in outdoor education.

"Our main concern for her is just her own well-being at the moment," Dr Davidson told NZPA.

"She is obviously very shaken and disturbed and grief stricken by the events that have unfolded.

"She needs support and counselling and that's what we are providing."

Mr Davidson said the centre's field manager, who had 10 years' local knowledge, was ultimately responsible for making decisions about whether or not to undertake certain activities.

The principal of Elim Christian College, Murray Burton, wanted answers today over the decision to take students down the Mangatepopo River.

Mr Burton said this afternoon: "We have natural questions as to what decision-making process they went through and that would be good to find out but that is where I will leave it at this stage."

However, he said he had no issue with the gear they wore - lifejackets, helmets, wetsuits and polypropylene clothing - or the staff at the centre.

Mr Burton said he was still having a hard time accepting the seven deaths.

"I wouldn't deny the fact that I am angry on why this has happened to the kids and the families. That is a natural reaction, it is not a white hot anger it is just - why us? Why this?

"But I can say without any trite words that my faith overcomes that anger."

He said the course was booked a year ago and school staff travelled to the centre last weekend.

The Palmerston North coroner today launched an official investigation to determine how the deaths occurred and who, if anyone, was responsible.

At Elim Christian College Andy Bray said his daughter, one of the seven victims, had been concerned about the weather but determined to make the most of the adventure.

Natasha Bray, 16, of Pakuranga was one of a group from Elim Christian College in Howick swept to their deaths on the swollen Mangatepopo River in the Ontario National Park.

Mr Bray said Natasha had been anxious about the weather but said: "I will jump in puddles, Dad".

Mr Bray said his daughter's expression meant "even if it's bad we're going to make the most of it."

He said the death of his daughter had tested his faith but added: "Without 'doubt' we don't have 'faith'."

He said family would get through this and be stronger as a result.

Mr Bray also said there would be questions over why the students were sent out.

"They (Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre which organised the trip) have got a process to go through, we don't have an axe to grind," Mr Bray said.

He said the parents of the deceased students would travel to the scene at a later date.

The other six deceased were named today as teacher Anthony McClean, 29, of Howick, Portia McPhail, 16, of Manurewa, Huan (Tom) Hsu, 16, of Farm Cove, Anthony Mulder, 16, of Howick, Floyd Fernandez, 16, of Howick, and Tara Gregory, 16, of Mt Wellington.

Click here for latest news on the tragedy

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In brief

* Six students and one teacher from Elim Christian College were swept to their deaths yesterday.
* They had been canyoning on the Mangatepopo River in Tongariro National Park.
* Another three people escaped the swollen waters.
* One was later hospitalised with back injuries.
* All seven victims will undergo post-mortem examinations.
* Elim's principal says he has no reason to question the call to go canyoning.
* He says there will be a full investigation.
* Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre says the river rose from 0.5 cubic metres to 18 cubic metres in half an hour.

- with NZPA

- NZ Herald

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