Drowned tourists ignored warning signs

By Greymouth Star staff

The Waiho River near Franz Josef. Photo / Andrew Ashton
The Waiho River near Franz Josef. Photo / Andrew Ashton

Two overseas tourists swept to their deaths in a night-time crossing of the glacier-fed Waiho River ignored international warning signs and showed poor judgement of the dangers of alpine river crossings, West Coast coroner Richard McElrea said yesterday.

Poi May Tan, 31, of Singapore, and Yu-Ling Chen, 28, of Taiwan, died from head injuries and drowning when they attempted to cross the icy river, just downstream of the Franz Josef Glacier, about 9.30pm last December 9.

The pair set off on a tramp to the Roberts Point viewpoint, above the glacier, mid-afternoon with two friends, Kam Ying Lee, also know as Ivan, and Ya Yun Chien, also known as Candy.

They took a copy of a map from the backpackers where they were staying, that showed them where the walk was located.

Since the double death, details of the Roberts Point track have been removed from the map, because it did not explain how difficult the walk was.

The tramp is a five-hour return trip, and it took the group four hours to reach the end.

On the way back, two of the group became weary. After a discussion they all decided to cross the river because they believed they could see the car park in the distance.

The group made it across three branches of the braided river, but hit trouble on the fourth.

Kam Ying Lee tested the area but Ya Yun Chien fell over and was carried further down the river. Although he managed to get out safely Lee, Tan and Chen got into trouble.

Lee initially had hold of the two women, but Tan was washed away. He continued to hold on to Chen, keeping her head above the water, but he lost his hold and they were separated.

Lee eventually made it out of the river, got his cellphone and tried to contact emergency services. He did not have reception until he found his way out to the road.

When police arrived, a search was launched about 11pm. The body of one of the missing women was found about 1am, about 3km down the river, and the second body was recovered 25 minutes later further downstream.

Forensic pathologist Martin Sage said at the inquest in Greymouth yesterday that neither woman had alcohol in their system and had died from head injuries and drowning.

"This was terribly tragic, especially since there was a swingbridge about half an hour from where they chose to cross. Their primary decision-making was full of errors. Had they decided to spend the night in the bush, they would have been cold and uncomfortable, but all of them would still be alive."

Department of Conservation (DoC) technical support supervisor Ian Wightwick said that since the incident DOC had added information to its website about the level of experience required for the Roberts Point walk. He had walked the track recently and it was steep, rocky, rough and uneven.

On the night of the tragedy the river would have been high and dirtier than expected, he said.

"Due to the mild conditions during the day there would have been a lot of snow melt."

Mr Wightwick said all the signs on the track carried international warning symbols.

Since the fatalities, DoC had proposed realigning the track where it nears the Waiho River. That was scheduled to happen over the next three months.

Mr McElrea, recommended that a new sign warning visitors should be put up at the start of the track.

"The core message from this inquiry would seem to be the dangers of crossing glacier-fed rivers," he said.

He concluded that Ms Tan and Ms Chen drowned because of poor decision making. They underestimated the dangers of alpine river crossings and did not take into account the sign, which clearly stated they should not attempt a crossing.

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