Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Let's find out why we dropped the ball

All it would have taken in Auckland for the powder keg to erupt was the collapse of a barrier around Queens Wharf. Photo / Sarah Ivey
All it would have taken in Auckland for the powder keg to erupt was the collapse of a barrier around Queens Wharf. Photo / Sarah Ivey

As the weeping players in the Pike River mine tragedy file slowly through the inquiry witness box, it's a chilling wake-up call to those trying to sweep Auckland's September 9 waterfront Rugby World Cup near-disaster under the carpet.

From the Pike River inquiry comes stories of incompetence and ill-preparedeness leading to the death of 29 miners. There were no alternative exits out of the mine. The emergency air pipes into the mine didn't work. The underground emergency telephone put a desperate caller through to an automatic recorder.

Then following the initial explosion there were hours - some say days - of dithering at the surface, by both company and emergency services. Sound familiar?

All it would have taken in Auckland for the powder keg to erupt was a bottle through a Queen St window, or the collapse of a barrier around Queens Wharf.

Then Auckland might be preparing for an official inquest into what the world media soon dubbed was Rugby World Cup 2011's Black Friday Disaster.

Because we lucked out, it's as though nothing happened. RWC Minister Murray McCully is so cock-a-hoop he's talking of hosting another cup, to say nothing of the Commonwealth Games as well. He told yesterday's Sunday Star-Times: "I think New Zealanders have demonstrated that we are up for this competition, that we can handle large numbers."

That certainly wasn't what he was saying two weeks ago, when he denounced his Auckland Council partners for "dropping the ball" on RWC opening night, and seized control.

The truth is the organisers failed very publicly to handle large crowds on that occasion, and it was only good fortune that Auckland wasn't headlined worldwide for all the wrong reasons. To ensure we learn from the experience, there's need for an independent public inquiry, yet Mr McCully and Mayor Len Brown both seem set on it going away.

At Auckland Council, the message has gone out to bureaucrats and politicians alike to hold their tongues, that we're Auckland Inc, we don't criticise our own. It's the old "we hang together or hang separately" mantra.

The council-controlled organisation Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (Ateed), which co-organised the waterfront opening extravaganza with the Government team, has disappeared under a rock, after an initial report blaming unexpectedly large crowds.

Its sister organisation, Auckland Transport, said the train network was overwhelmed by crowds, also pointing the finger at private train operator Veolia for not having systems in place to communicate to trapped travellers.

Auckland Transport commissioned an independent inquiry by the Crown Solicitor's Meredith Connell partner, Chris Moore, which is yet to be made public. He relied on information supplied by members of Auckland Inc and Veolia. Expect to read that unexpected crowds overwhelmed the system, Veolia failed to communicate adequately, but circumstances are unlikely to be repeated.

There is, however, one element of doubt threatening to blow apart Auckland Inc's comfortable party line. That's the issue of crowd size. Everyone involved has happily seized upon the police estimate, claiming 200,000 people descended on the waterfront that night.

But what if the crowd size was in reality only the 50,000-70,000 Ateed predicted? That would mean Auckland Inc had failed to cope even with the crowds they had expected to turn up.

Statistician Tony Cooper says just this. He examined aerial photographs of the crowds and says the maximum number that could have occupied the designated "party central" streets was 70,638. He says the actual crowd could have been around 50,000.

Last December, Mr Cooper, managing director of research company Double-Digit Numerics, did a similar exercise on Santa Parade crowds, calculating a figure of 30,000 spectators lining the CBD streets, not the accepted myth of 300,000.

His calculations of the September 9 crowd throw into serious doubt the explanation officialdom would prefer you to believe. The "once in a thousand years crowd size, won't happen again, let's just concentrate on the rugby" mantra. We need to get to the truth, if only to avoid a replay which might have a very different ending.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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