Possum's fatal crash, by Barltrop co-driver

Chris Ruane tells of the crash that killed a rally legend. MONIQUE DEVEREUX reports


If he had not been a last-minute substitute, Chris Ruane would never have become the key witness to the accident that claimed the life of rally car legend Possum Bourne.

For the second year running Ruane was working on the Silverstone Race to the Sky rally as an electrician, ensuring power was supplied to the area to enable the race to be broadcast.

The six-year-old event, held high above the Cardrona pub, has fast become internationally known. Drivers compete to travel the 15km of gravel surface, round 137 corners, and climbing from 1500 ft (457m) to 5000 ft (1524m) in the fastest time.

Media coverage is beamed out to motorsport fans worldwide, while Wanaka and Queenstown benefit from the influx of around 100 competitors, their support crews and the thousands of spectators.

Ruane was already familiar with Snow Farm Rd on which the race is held, as for the past six years he has worked on car commercials filmed in the area.

Two weeks before the race last year he was asked by Mike Barltrop, 39, to co-drive, standing in for Barltrop's then-fiance Rebecca Greer. The men had been friends for about seven years.

As late as the morning of the crash - day one of the three-day event - Ruane was unsure if he would be allowed to take part as his paper work had not been returned from Motorsport New Zealand.

The Christchurch man had travelled to Kingston, a small town 40 minutes south of Queenstown, and stayed with Barltrop and Greer the night before the event.

The next morning, Good Friday, after clearance for Ruane, the pair met up for the pre-race "recce" of the road, travelling in convoy with the other competitors.

The first trip was uneventful. There was a reasonable amount of dust and Ruane didn't notice too much traffic on the road.

Before the second trip up the road Barltrop decided to simplify and re-write the supplied pace notes.

"It was quite a nice day and visibility was good," Ruane said.

It wasn't far into this second run that tragedy struck.

Barltrop was driving over the brow of a small rise when he told Ruane he wanted to be "over to the right".

This was, Ruane said, so he could negotiate the left sweeper bend further along the course.

"I wasn't required to write any notes on this section of the road because it was straight.

"I had probably paused.

"We were on the middle-right side of the road.

"We weren't completely hard over to the right."

Ruane said they stayed in this position for some 200m before suddenly seeing Possum Bourne's black Subaru coming towards them.

It was braking and steering to its left towards the bank.

It was at this point Barltrop made his fatal error of judgment.

He, too, hit the brakes but turned the steering wheel to his right, putting his Jeep on a collision course with Bourne.

The impact left Barltrop trapped in his Jeep with a broken leg, although he was conscious.

Another competitor, Jeffery Hill, was one of the first on the scene.

He said Barltrop was "making a lot of noise so I thought he wasn't in a life-threatening situation".

But things were much worse for Bourne. When the uninjured Ruane managed to get out of the Jeep and over to the Subaru he found Bourne bleeding and slumped half out of the car, unconscious but breathing.

Other cars had started to pull up and Ruane organised someone to hold Bourne's head up and keep his airway open. He then returned to check on his team mate, and then asked someone with a cellphone to call for help.

Ruane would later tell police it seemed the incident happened "over three or four seconds".

For Barltrop the consequences of that right-hand turn have been felt for the past 18 months and, with a jail term now possible, are set to last a lot longer.

His relationship with his partner broke up. He and Rebecca Greer were due to marry a month later but postponed it, then later split.

It took police five months of investigating before he was charged with dangerous driving causing death.

Barltrop maintained his innocence and vowed to fight the charges.

Just two weeks before he was arrested he was interviewed by One News.

"I just saw this car coming out of nowhere braking heavily and I took evasive action. Sure as hell didn't expect something to come flying over the corner, over the brow at full speed."

Barltrop said other drivers had estimated Bourne was travelling at up to 140 km/h.

"I haven't slept for five months since it happened - I just can't sleep," he said after his first appearance in court.

"I'm trying to be philosophical every day, well every minute really. It's hard, really hard. It hurts. But I'm confident that I will come through this and be cleared of blame."

Sources involved in the case said once Ruane gave his account of the crash Barltrop was always going to be charged.

Even though it cost him his friendship with Barltrop, Ruane's story stayed the same.

"It must have been exceptionally difficult for him," one source said. "But he has used his integrity and stuck to the truth right from 30 seconds after the crash to now."

Ruane would always have been the key witness, but there was other evidence.

Jeffery Hill was one of the many competitors who had seen Possum Bourne travelling in the opposite direction during the Good Friday recce.

"He was travelling up, we were travelling down. He was going quite slow. It appeared he was travelling at less than 50 km/h. You couldn't go any faster because of the amount of dust being kicked up by the convoy. I remember seeing that he had his race overalls on."

Hill, who was co-driving for Andrew Hawkeswood, saw Bourne again on the second recce, about 500m above the crash site.

Again he said Bourne's speed was not particularly fast, estimating it to be about 60 km/h.

Hawkeswood's statement also put Bourne's speed at 60 km/h, as did Roger Laird, the race official leading the recce.

Some 500m on from passing Bourne on the second run someone else in Hill's car noticed the crash. They turned back to check.

"It wasn't until we arrived that we realised how serious the situation was," Hill said.

"It was clear that Mr Bourne's car had collided virtually head on with Barltrop's Jeep."

After checking Barltrop, Hill climbed inside Bourne's Subaru and tried to keep the injured man still. Both vehicles were smoking and Andrew Hawkeswood yelled for someone to get a fire extinguisher.

"I have been in a burning car and it was a fear," he said.

Someone else disconnected the car battery.

Emergency services arrived within 20 minutes.

An ambulance officer had to cradle Bourne's head, which had been fitted with a neck brace, as the fire crew carefully cut and peeled away the doors, roof, and dashboard. It took 75 minutes.

Wanaka fire chief Steve Trevathan later summed it up as "a bugger of a job".

Peter Bourne was born on April 13, 1956. He gained the nickname Possum when as a teenager he rolled his mother's car while trying to avoid one.

He died in Dunedin Hospital on April 30 last year after life support was withdrawn. His head injuries were too severe for him to recover.


Herald Feature: Possum Bourne, 1956-2003

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