Elim Christian College principal Murray Burton says he still feels responsible for the six students and teacher who died after being swept away by floodwaters in the Mangatepopo canyoning tragedy.

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the school camp at the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre at which the lives of Year 12 students Natasha Bray, Portia McPhail, Tara Gregory, Anthony Mulder, Huan (Tom) Hsu, and Floyd Fernandes, and teacher Antony McClean were lost.

Fellow students Ashley Smith, Kish Procter, Sarah Brooks and Peter Shih, and guide Jodie Sullivan survived the April 15, 2008, tragedy.

Burton was on his way home to celebrate his 50th birthday when news broke that a group of students and a teacher who had been canyoning in the gorge were missing.
"I feel a deep responsibility," Burton told the Herald on Sunday.


"What could I have done better? Did we not have our risk management procedures right? We got a big tick that they were right. Did OPC not have their procedures right? An inquest and an investigation took care of that.

"I remember saying to God, 'Why did you do that to our school?'."

The group was swept away by floodwaters brought on by heavy rain.

OPC instructor Sullivan made the decision to leave a rock ledge above the Mangatepopo Stream and enter the river with a group of students, some of them roped in pairs, to follow at five–minute intervals.

Only Sullivan and four students survived.

A Coronial inquiry in March 2010 found the group's instructor was not trained to take groups out of an escape route at a halfway point in the gorge and that "under-estimation of risks" and "complacency" had contributed to the deaths. Other instructors had heard claps of thunder in the area and had seen a "brown raging torrent" coming out of the gorge.

On Friday families and friends attended an assembly at Elim Christian College to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the tragedy.

Elim Christian College principal Murray Burton has spoken of the ongoing pain on the 10th anniversary of the Mangatepopo tragedy. New Zealand Herald Photograph by Jason Oxenham.
Elim Christian College principal Murray Burton has spoken of the ongoing pain on the 10th anniversary of the Mangatepopo tragedy. New Zealand Herald Photograph by Jason Oxenham.

Burton told the Herald he believed Sullivan had paid the biggest price.


"Jodie shouldn't be punished for the rest of her life for making that decision. Unfortunately she had been at the OPC for a short time but her job was to challenge them. A more senior instructor would have said 'When it rains like this there is a flow-on effect'.

"But in her defence, having Year 12s enthusiastic and dressed up ready to go, it's hard to say 'No'."

He said Sullivan deserved the chance to move on from the tragedy and encouraged her to "find it in your heart to embrace life to its full".

"You only get to live once and I trust you will have people around you to encourage you and believe the best in you," he said.

Sullivan, now a social sciences teacher at Stratford High school, didn't respond to requests for an interview.

Burton said post-tragedy there was a perception from some that his school was "unsafe" and "wouldn't' survive", but it had grown from one campus in Botany to three, including Mt Albert and Golflands.

After the tragedy Elim students stopped going to the Outdoors Pursuit Centre, but Burton believes it might be time for his students to return.

"We have never said this is a terrible place to go and we don't believe in it. We are not immediately thinking of it but we are not opposed to it either."

And each day Burton is reminded of his "seven in heaven" via a happy photo of group who tragically didn't make it home.

"I would love to turn the clock back -six stunning students and a teacher with so much promise – it's almost like God chose the best," he said.

"You don't ever want to ever glorify someone in death more than they should be but they were stunning – with everything to live for".