Nicholas Jones

Nicholas Jones is the New Zealand Herald’s education reporter.

Canyon tragedy: 5 years on

Five years on, Mangatepopo canyoning tragedy survivor remembers his lost friends

Kish Proctor used to love swimming in the ocean, but in five years, the 20-year-old law and commerce student can count the number of times he's been in the sea almost on one hand.

"You always have that uncertainty in you. You are overcritical of things. That's a problem that has come out," he says quietly.

"If you watch a movie and you see scenes of water and stuff like that, then you kind of think about it, and you draw that comparison."

Five years ago on Monday, Kish was one of a group from Elim Christian College in Howick who found themselves trapped in a rocky crevasse by rising water in the Mangatepopo Gorge.

He volunteered to be the first student to enter the swollen torrent and swim a short distance to the safety of a riverbank and a waiting instructor. The group cheered him as he left.

Six of his schoolmates followed him to their deaths, as well as teacher Tony McClean, in a tragedy that shocked the nation and put outdoor safety in the spotlight, where it has remained.

Kish, then just 15 years old, was swept over Mangatepopo Dam, his safety helmet split on rocks and his boots ripped away by rushing water.

He was one of two students to survive going over the dam. Two other students who survived hadn't been swept over.

Speaking to the Weekend Herald this week, he says his back still gives him the odd bit of trouble, but he rates himself "pretty good" overall, although he is cautious as to what he says out of sensitivity to the families who lost loved ones that day.

"It's pretty hard, because at the end of the day, I can only say I'm thankful I have my life. And it adds a little bit of pressure, because it's like, 'You're alive - what are you going to do?'

"Every day you are thankful. I look at my 21st birthday coming up, and I think, maybe I wouldn't have had this milestone ... it really puts things into perspective."

Softly-spoken, he becomes less so when explaining how the tragedy has given him an appreciation of mortality.

"It's so cliched, but how short life is - you think you'd be around forever, or you plan 40 years in advance. And then something comes up.

"The biggest thing I've learnt is when you do something or go into something, don't take it for granted. Just because there's a safety sign ... always think for yourself - practically, is what I'm doing the right thing?"

In 2009 the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre (OPC) was fined $480,000 over the canyoning accident. At the time, the judge said that given the weather forecast, the group should never have been in the gorge that day.

Asked if the centre and those involved in the tragedy had been held accountable, Kish says, "legally what needed to be done, has been done".

But he says it has been painful to hear about other outdoor pursuits deaths.

"I love the outdoors. And I wouldn't have it any other way in terms of experiencing stuff like that. But people just need to be safe."

Kish has a younger brother who is still at Elim, a school he credits for helping him through the ordeal. He will be there on Monday for a special school assembly.

But, ultimately, remembrance is not a date on a calendar.

"Sometimes you are in a place, and you remember the person again. And you're like, 'What would so-and-so have done?' And you always think, 'What would they be like now?"'

- NZ Herald

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