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Tuesday, April 28, 2015 - 5
pril 28, 1995 is otherwise a beautiful
autumn day. Seventeen outdoor
education students from Tai Poutini
Polytechnic are on a day trip to learn
about the limestone formations and
caves up Bullock Creek. Some had
never even heard the words ‘Cave Creek’ before.
Accompanied by the Department of Conser vation’s
Punakaiki field centre manager Stephen O’Dea, the
students crowd on to the viewing platform high above
It sways, then tips, crashing about 30m on to the
rocks below. Thirteen students are killed, along with Mr
“I looked over and went to take a step back because
I don’t like heights. Suddenly, and with no warning
except for yells of surprise, the platform was falling
under our feet. It began sliding down at approximately
30 degrees and then tipped and fell vertically, with
everyone falling in front of it,” Carolyn Smith told
the Commission of Inquiry, headed by Judge Graeme
Polytechnic tutor John Skilton led students Leanne
Wheeler and Darren Gamble, who had not been
standing on the platform, down to the chasm flo o r.
Meanwhile, DOC staff member Shirley Slatter and
student Mark Traynor ran back to the department ’s
vehicle to use the two-way radio to summon
But the driver of the van had fallen with the platform,
and the keys were in his pocket. The radio would not
work without them. So Mr Traynor had to continue his
long, lonely journey, on to the nearest home.
It would be 100 minutes after the disaster, when
Chris Cowan’s helicopter arrived at the scene, hovering
over that deadly chasm.
By 2pm the first two survivors had been airlifted
out. At 5.15pm an ambulance with the first three
bodies arrived at Grey Base Hospital; and at 5.20pm
ambulances and hearses with the other 11 bodies left
for the morgue.
“I am satisfied that overall the rescue and recovery
effort was a superb example of co-operation. Everyone
involved should be congratulated on a difficult job
extremely well done,” Judge Noble said.
Barrytown beekeeper Roy Arbon, also a member of
the Alpine Cliff Rescue team, was the very first rescuer
on the ground with policeman Alan Hendrickson, as
Chris Cowan buzzed overhead. It was, he recalls, a
“I was called in from my home at Barrytown. I went
and stopped at the information centre (at Punakaiki),
(constable) Adele Coll was there, and told me go up to
Cave Creek,” Arbon says.
They had to go around an ambulance that had
become stuck in a ford. By then, the survivors had been
lying in the chasm for more than one and a half hours.
“It was bad,” Mr Arbon has since been back to have a
look, and when the Pike River Mine disaster happened
“it brought me back”.
He was soon joined by cliff rescue colleague Sewart
Robertson, who was teaching 7th form chemistry at
Greymouth High School.
“I was soon in a car racing up the Coast Road with
Graeme Mac and Andrew Mauger, wondering what lay
ahead. All we knew was that a platform had collapsed
at Cave Creek and there were multiple fatalities.”
“It played out as one of the saddest days in his life.
“The experience of being involved in the recovery of
so many victims was so strange to me. I just got on with
what was necessary.
“However, once I was back home, thinking over
the details of tragedy and its effects was much more
“It all took place in such a beautiful setting and on
such a glorious April day.”
Retired Greymouth chief fire officer Alan McEnaney
said they were not even sure exactly where Cave
Creek was when the first call came in, and at first they
thought the platform had collapsed at the Punakaiki
“It was a day of waiting. One thing I do remember,
one of the hardest things, was I put in a coded report to
the fire station for the 14 dead. I still remember them
saying ‘you sure?’ Yes, one four.”
Firefighters helped recover the bodies, which were
taken out by helicopter and then transferred to hearses.
Shelley Klempel, Andrew Ching and Ian Rodger
were first on the scene for St John.
As Ms Klempel was initially making her way on foot
towards the safe for ward point, with Andrew, she was
struck by the eerie calmness of the area.
Constable Adele Coll was about to have lunch when
the call came. Like the others, she did not know what
she was responding to.
“It was a tragic sight when we arrived. It’s hard to find
the words to describe it,” Mrs Coll says.
“It was heartbreaking to see the loss of so many lives
at such a young age, with their futures ahead of them.”
And it did not end that day, or month. She has since
returned to the site, and continued to maintain contact
with some of the families, long after the day of the
The inquiry, she says, dragged on for many months
and affected many other’s lives.
The victims had been staying at the hostel close to
the hospital, super vised by Mary Wakefield, the “house
Her day job was a social worker at the hospital, so
she was at work when they were told something had
happened, and put on standby.
“It was surreal. As they came into A and E, I was able
to say who they were, Wakefield says.
She pauses for a moment. “ The DHB was very good,
I kept going over and back, over and back (to the
They got all the students together and locked the
place down. Some manned the phones, and “some of
my beautiful Maori boys from up north did the door”.
“The students were incredible.” They put flowers and
chocolates on the students’ doors.
The following week was crazy, as students headed to
funerals around the country.
Things were never the same again; they settled into a
new reality as days became weeks, and weeks became
“I can still see them,” she says of those who lost their
lives. “And I think about the students who survived,
their incredible courage. Their dignity. Their love. Their
ability to make a positive out of it all.”
The Commission of Inquiry report was damning.
None of the DOC group who built the platform was a
qualified builder or engineer.
The platform had been built off-site and then had
been flown in to Cave Creek. However, the plans for
the installation were not taken to the site, and so were
not followed. The bolts which were supposed to secure
the platform to the steps were taken to the site but
without a drill, so nails were used instead. When the
steps to the platform were poured some time later they
were not secured properly to the platform.
DOC acted illegally and negligently, the commission
concluded, but it had not been given enough resources
to do its job properly. Because of this, projects were
carried out on limited budgets.
Compensation of $2.6 million was paid out to the
There were no prosecutions as a result of the deaths,
but the department ’s West Coast regional conservator
Bruce Watson resigned after the Commission of
Inquiry report came out. The Minister of Conser vation,
Denis Marshall, later resigned also, in May 1996,
followed by the chief executive of DOC.
In the three months following the tragedy, 15 of
DOC’s 106 viewing platforms throughout New
Zealand were closed for repairs.
In 1998, three years after the Cave Creek tragedy, the
track was opened again to the public, with new stairs
to replace the old ones, which had been removed. The
viewing platform was never rebuilt.
Those who lost their lives were: students
Catherine McCarthy, Abram Larmour, De-Anne
Reid, Paul Chisholm, Scott Murray, Alison
Blackman, Anne-Marie Cook, Jody Davis, Peter
Shaw, Barry Hobson, Matthew Reed, Kit Pawsey
and Evan Stuart, and Punakaiki DOC officer
“I cannot help but compare Cave
Creek with Pike River.
There was a world of difference
between Pike River and Cave
Creek. Cave Creek was very quickly
accepted by the government of the
day as being a total mix-up, not
caused by greed but rather by a
well-meaning wish to save taxpayer
money in running DOC. The faults
were quickly accepted and were
The event was tragic, particularly
for the families concerned. It has
left me with a loathing of the
‘thump thump’ sound of Iroquois
helicopters, and a smile on my face
of the confession by a policeman of
driving at l80kph towing a trailer
on the Barrytown straight that
In regard to Pike River, the
shortcuts which undoubtedly led
to the tragedy have never been
accepted because of dubious
corporate evasiveness backed up, in
my opinion, by the present Prime
Minister. This was in stark contrast
to the way that former Prime
Minister Mr Bolger acted after
Cave Creek. These faults owe
their origin to a straightfor ward
love of money, so well practised in
All of the families owe a debt
of gratitude to the support given
by the West Coast community.
In my case, my deepest gratitude
extends in particular to the staff
and students of John Paul II High
School, our church, Tai Poutini
Polytechnic and the people of
The valley floor at Cave Creek in 1995. The platform had been
moved by the time this photo was taken by rescuers.
The song Amazing Grace is carried by the wind at Greymouth aerodrome as six bodies are loaded into an RNZAF plane,
while their friends stand in song. Back at their hostel, a fist-sized hole has been punched in the hall. Just days earlier, on
April 28, 1995, 14 young people — a Department of Conservation worker and 13 Tai Poutini Polytechnic students — died
in the Cave Creek disaster, inland from Punakaiki. Twenty years on, LAURA MILLS talks to those first on the scene.
Cave Creek ref lections
Cave Creek ref lections
high school teacher
of Runanga, lost his
daughter Catherine in the
disaster. He penned his
thoughts to mark the 20th
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