Kenya crash: Former student encouraged to drive

People at the Bethlehem College vigil. Photo / George Novak
People at the Bethlehem College vigil. Photo / George Novak

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 Weekend that Mr Mmata had encouraged students and ex-students to drive as part of their "Kenyan experience", and this had been allowed by some tour group leaders.

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

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 was 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 said.

No disciplinary action would be taken against the tour leader and no one impacted by the tragedy was looking for scalps, he said. 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.

- APNZ

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