One thoughtless moment and three lives irrevocably changed. JAN CORBETT uncovers what led to the tragedy at the Merrill Lynch Christmas party.

If their lives had continued on course, 24-year-old Gareth MacFadyen would be a highly paid futures trader in Sydney or Tokyo.

Angela Offwood, 29, would be living, unscathed, in blissful anonymity, without women's magazines pounding the door down for her story, and Matthew Schofield, 26, would be mapping out the rest of his career as a financial analyst, fulfilling his early promise as one of the best mathematics brains in the country.

But one Friday night two weeks before Christmas, all that changed.


Three days later, Ian and Sue MacFadyen were taking their son's charred body home for a funeral in Invercargill.

Angela Offwood - lying in a hospital bed with a tube for food, a pump for morphine and about to face a series of skin-grafts - was the subject of nationwide tittering about what she had been doing with him in a men's toilet.

And Matthew Schofield was left living a life in which there must surely be times when he envies the dead.

The rest of us sat around barbecues and bar tables over the summer, discussing whether the gruesome events at the Merrill Lynch Christmas party were the actions of a demented idiot who should have been controlled by his supervisors and colleagues, or a tragic result of the type of party behaviour many of us have been involved in. Men, especially, remembered times when they could have become another Matthew Schofield.

And, of course, everyone jumped to the obvious but erroneous conclusion about what was going on in the toilet cubicle.

The news was splashed across television on Saturday evening, in the thick of what was already a controversial party season.

Only weeks before, it had been Vodafone's Christmas bash dominating the headlines after staff complained about Thai strippers and cruelty to elephants and monkeys.

And now this. A man and woman in Middlemore Hospital with severe burns after his fancy dress costume caught fire at a party on the fifth floor of Auckland's stylish Quay West Hotel - across the road from Merrill Lynch's high-rise office and two blocks from the District Court, where this would all end up.

Within days, the story was featuring round the world in the newspaper columns reserved for brief strange-but-true items.

For the staff at Merrill Lynch, the local branch of one of the world's largest sharebrokers and investment bankers, this particular office party was always going to be emotionally charged.

The American-based company was retrenching to Australia, leaving most of its local staff behind.

They may have felt unsettled, but these would not have been people deeply fearful for their future. They were relatively young, with privilege, brains and addresses in Remuera and Takapuna on their side.

And it says something about their youth and vitality that they chose a beach-party theme for what was essentially a farewell party for the 50 or so staff. In line with company policy, the Christmas party did not include partners. It might have been different if it had.

Gareth MacFadyen decided to go Hawaiian, choosing a synthetic hula skirt and black wig. Matthew Schofield, who did not smoke, was for some reason brandishing a cigarette lighter.

Guests thought they remembered him trying to set a variety of things alight - curtains, straw hats, Hawaiian skirts. Either by good fortune or good design, nothing much can have ignited.

Near midnight, Ms Offwood was desperate to use the bathroom but found the women's toilets overcrowded.

Mr MacFadyen, whom she had spent six months getting to know as part of a group studying for the same exam, was on his way to the men's and suggested she nip in there.

Ms Offwood had been married for five years, and she and husband Craig had come to think of Mr MacFadyen as a mate - the type of younger guy a woman might trust to chaperone her in a men's toilet. And he had something he was bursting to tell her.

Even among the young and gifted, Mr MacFadyen was a star. He had represented New Zealand in under-17 soccer, and, after leaving Otago University, worked for Bankers Trust in Japan and played rugby for the Tokyo Crusaders.

The good-looking son of a policeman and a teacher, he came to Auckland at the beginning of 2000 intending to resume university study, but a 10-minute interview with Merrill Lynch changed that.

And now the firm had told him that after the local office closed he could take his pick of a post in either Sydney or Tokyo, the sort of offer usually made to more senior traders.

Although he had phoned his parents with the news, in the sensitive climate of the redundancies he was asked to keep it quiet. So he followed Ms Offwood into a cubicle, where he whispered it to her.

Schofield was in the next booth. He reached under the partition with his lighter. The flames from such a small area must have been licking the ceiling to set the sprinkler system off as they did.

Ms Offwood, her own sarong alight and fixed fast with a safety pin, tried desperately to douse the flames by splashing water from the toilet bowl.

But by now the scalding synthetic from the Hawaiian skirt would have been dripping like lava over Mr MacFadyen's blistering skin.

An old classmate from Southland Boys High School came to his aid as he lay, gasping but conscious, on the bathroom floor. With his nerve endings so severely damaged, it is likely he felt little pain.

In the confusion of sirens, firefighters, and hysterical partygoers, a distraught Schofield told police he was to blame.

Even with burns to 95 per cent of his body, Mr MacFadyen lived three days longer than doctors expected. Inevitably, without skin, fluids leached out of his system, organs failed, and finally his body shut down.

While Ms Offwood's husband, Craig, who also works in finance, was placing a death notice that read, "Gareth, you were a kindred spirit. You will remain forever in our hearts, thoughts and prayers," the police were deciding whether to charge Schofield with manslaughter or murder.

The lesser charge prevailed, largely because murder requires proof that the accused knew death would result.

Schofield waived name suppression at his first court appearance where his lawyer, Stuart Grieve, QC, described the events as "an act of stupidity committed in the atmosphere of a Christmas party where alcohol had been consumed."

But Detective Lance Burdett was struck by how comparatively sober the revellers were. These were young sophisticates, accustomed to the free flow of alcohol at corporate functions and in international hotel rooms, and they knew how to handle their drink.

They were screened for drugs, but nothing was detected. They were on what he calls "a spiritual high."

"They were all work buddies," says the detective. "That's what made it a difficult inquiry. They were all nice people who ended up in a tragedy. They were not like the scumbags we normally deal with."

When Holmes reporter Duncan Garner learned it was Schofield who had set fire to his colleagues, he was stunned. Of all the people he remembered from his Westlake Boys High School rowing team, Schofield seemed the least likely to finish up in court.

"He was always quiet and never stirred up trouble. We had practical jokers at school, but Matthew was never one of them. I've got a huge amount of respect for him. He was bright, intelligent and witty. This is the wrong crime to happen to the wrong person."

In a school noted for producing winners - America's Cup skipper Dean Barker was in the class ahead, Chris Dickson went there, too - Schofield stood out in a similar style to his victim.

The son of an engineer who served on the school board, he won prizes for mathematics, economics and accounting, and besides rowing, he excelled at squash.

The school magazine described him as someone "always giving encouragement and advice to the rest of the team," and as "one of the keenest and hardest triers" the captain had seen.

But his class had its share of tragedy. In 1991, their seventh-form year, classmate Darryl Fleming fell to his death from the escalators in Queen St's Finance Plaza. Later, Mark Sandford, a friend of Schofield's from the rowing team, drowned in the Greek islands.

Clearly many of his friends and colleagues felt sorry for Schofield. A large number gathered at court to lend support at his first appearance.

But for Merrill Lynch this was clearly a public relations disaster. After all, it is a company with a prescribed set of values, among them, "respect for the individual, be they employees or members of the public," and "no one's bottom line is more important than the reputation of the company."

Had this happened in America, the multimillion-dollar lawsuits would have already been filed.

Certainly Occupational Safety and Health considered charging Merrill Lynch. But the law did not fit the circumstances.

"This situation was never envisaged when the act was written," says OSH spokesman Justin Brownlee. "It was outside the office - the victim was not at work. There's not a lot an employer can do if an employee is going to act in a reckless fashion."

Which is why, he says, office parties are a concern to OSH, as they are to Ian Braggins, Auckland's fire safety manager. "My concern is that party venues get turned into death traps. Black plastic gets used for effect. There'll be polystyrene models and naked flames. It's all unregulated."

Surprising, then, that the last time someone burned to death at a fancy dress party was in Remuera in 1959, when 26-year-old advertising agent Rusty Gray lit his cigar and threw the match away.

It fell into 33-year-old Charles Burnett's grass skirt. Gray was acquitted of manslaughter, left New Zealand and set up an advertising agency in Sydney.

Whether Schofield can resurrect his career here remains to be seen. Industry sources say he will have difficulty finding employment where he deals directly with clients.

It will be at least six months before Ms Offwood can give up physiotherapy and regular visits to Middlemore Hospital. In the meantime, all she wants to do is hide. She doesn't care what the rest of the world believes went on in the toilet cubicle.