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Responding to the Tragedy in New Zealand

Author(s): Rick Curtis
Posted: April 16, 2008

On Tuesday, April 15, 2008 a five-day backcountry adventure trip in Tongariro National Park on the North Island in New Zealand ended tragically when 6 students and a teacher died. In a small country like New Zealand, where adventure activities are a part of the culture, this is a national tragedy. Our hearts go out to all of families, the school community and the members of the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre (OPC).

As people deal with shock and grief there is a natural human need to question why or how such things happen. Already there are comments in the press “about whether adventure activities should be a part of school education.” While understanding this as a part of the grieving process, we need to be careful not to rush to judgment about the incident. Initial indications are of an extreme and highly unusual weather event where the water level in the river rose from “0.5 cubic meter to 18 cubic meters in half an hour.” In the same storm a man on horseback was killed by lightning, an extremely rare event in New Zealand. The New Zealand Weather Service has indicated that it initially did not release information about the possibility of thunderstorms that day.

OPC is one of the most respected outdoor programs in New Zealand and has a superb safety record. I had the privilege of visiting OPC in December 2002 as a keynote speaker at the 1st International Risk Management Conference for outdoor educators in New Zealand and found that in many ways the kiwis were way ahead of North American programs in their structural approaches to risk management. It is well-integrated into the fabric of their programming.

This past summer a friend was in Colorado and had just finished a multi-pitch climb. He was hiking back down to his car when a small boulder dislodged and careened into the back of his leg, breaking both tibia and fibula in multiple places and doing massive tissue damage to his lower leg. After multiple surgeries he continues to recover. This accident was something totally unpredictable and was not the result of any mistakes on the part of my friend. In legal terms it would fall into the category of “an act of God.” In tragic incidents like this one in New Zealand when there are multiple fatalities, the desire for understanding sometimes clouds people’s judgment and people assume that someone made a mistake. This too could have been one of those unpredictable and therefore unpreventable situations.

Here are some updates on the incident.

Weather forecast error before fatal trip in New Zealand
April 18, 2008
The Age

Outdoors New Zealand Press Release on Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre Drownings
April 18, 2008
Press Release

NZ’s Weather Service under scrutiny for drowning deaths
April 18, 2008

Deaths in New Zealand prompt review of outdoor education
April 18, 2008


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