Canyoning Tragedy in New Zealand

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Hannah Johnston / Getty Images

Students and teachers mourn the death of six students and one teacher at Elim Christian College on April 16 in Auckland, New Zealand

It was with the usual emotions teenagers feel when they're about to embark on an adventure—without their parents—that some 40 students from Elim Christian College in Auckland, New Zealand assembled on Sunday morning. Their school-holiday excursion entailed a five-hour bus ride to an outdoor center in the Central North Island, where they were to spend five days bonding with one another, developing their leadership skills and having fun.

But the experience turned into a catastrophe on Tuesday afternoon, when a sudden storm during a canyoning exercise caused the deaths of six of the students and a teacher. Canyoning, also called canyoneering, is an increasingly popular sport in which participants walk, run, climb, and swim through river gorges. All of the dead drowned when they were washed away by a flash flood.

At a special assembly in the school hall on Wednesday morning, principal Murray Burton read out the names of the dead. The six students — three boys and three girls — were all 16 years old; teacher Tony McClean was 29. Addressing an audience that included students, parents and politicians, Burton struggled to explain the tragedy to the community: "I don't mind if you're angry," Burton said. "Be angry at God because He can handle that. But keep trusting."

At least three separate investigations—one by the North Palmerston Coroner— will try to piece together what went wrong. The canyoning trip was run by the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre (OTC), which is reported to have had a flawless safety record since its inception in 1973. Experienced staff were supervising the Elim College children, who were decked out in wetsuits, helmets, flotation vests and harnesses. Conditions were fine when their outing on Mangatepopo River, part of the rugged, remote Tongariro National Park, began in the early afternoon.

There is disagreement about what the weather forecast had been for that afternoon. The OTC maintains there had been no prediction of heavy rain. However, a local bureau, MetService, is saying otherwise. What is clear is that at around 3:30 a downpour, described by OTC chief executive Grant Davidson as a "rain bomb," struck the area, causing an extremely rapid rise in the river's water level. It soared from 0.5 cubic meter to 18 cubic meters in half an hour, according to Davidson. "I have seen that amount of water but I have never seen it come down at that speed," he said. Trapped in a gorge, separated for reasons unclear from the rest of the party, doomed students and their teacher were swept away. All the bodies have been recovered, the last two by helicopter just before dawn on Wednesday.

The remainder of the group returned by bus on Wednesday afternoon to Elim College. The school released brief profiles of the deceased students: Natasha Bray, Floyd Fernandes, Tara Gregory, Huan Hsu, Portia McPhail and Anthony Mulder. McPhail's reads, in part: "Portia was a gentle, kind, mature girl who loved playing and coaching netball." Teacher McLean is described as "an amazing teacher who loved God, life, students and sport." Natasha Bray's father said the loss of his daughter had shaken his faith, but he did not blame the OPC. "They have got a process to go through," he said. "We don't have an axe to grind." But for the New Zealand public, the disaster may raise doubts about whether adventure activities should be a part of school education.