Nation left in shock after freak flood in gorge kills six pupils and teacher
SIX teenagers and their teacher who died in a river gorge in New Zealand when floodwaters suddenly surged down on them had little chance of escape, the head of their school said yesterday.
New Zealanders have been left deeply shocked by Tuesday's tragedy, which devastated an expedition that was supposed to build team spirit and environmental awareness.
Six 16-year-old students from Elim Christian High School and their 29-year-old teacher were killed when they were overwhelmed by floodwaters that streamed down the Mangatepopo River after a violent rainstorm.
Five other students were plucked to safety from the torrent in Tongariro National Park on New Zealand's North Island. One of the survivors said he had been able to clutch on to a log when the waters surged.
Officials said there was no apparent warning to the group before the river quickly rose in the narrow gorge.
"It is a tragedy which defies belief," Murray Burton, the school principal, told reporters.
Weeping pupils clutched each other as Mr Burton read a list of those who died during a special assembly yesterday at the school in Auckland, New Zealand's largest city.
The teenagers were part of a group of 40 students attending a week-long course at the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre in the small town of Turangi. The course involved navigating the gorge by swimming, clambering over rocks and hiking in an activity known as canyoning.
Those swept away were in a group of 12 that had separated from the main party.
Mr Burton said: "We understand that there was a flash flood which took the river, probably triple, quadruple in height, and … later dissipated."
He said officials had told him the victims – three boys and three girls plus their male teacher – had no escape route from the surging waters because of the canyon's high walls.
Helen Clark, New Zealand's prime minister, expressed "profound sympathy and shock" and introduced a condolence motion in parliament. The premier, a mountaineer and lover of the countryside, said: "This is every family and school's worst nightmare, to have this happen when young people are out doing a healthy and normally very enjoyable activity, and it turns into a terrible tragedy.
"I think the thoughts of all Kiwis will be with the families and the school communities and the outdoor pursuit centre today."
Andy Bray, whose daughter Natasha was one of those killed, told reporters it was "one of those freak moments when a lot of water poured down, one of those once-in-a-million-years kind of things."
He went on: "They were selfless, giving their lives to make a difference. They loved God and wanted to be part of making this world better.
"We are saying to God, why has this happened? Where does this fit into your plan, and I do not have an answer to that."
Mr Burton said the hiking group had been well equipped with wet suits, helmets, life jackets and harnesses, and that the students were in the care of an experienced guide.
Inspector Dave White, from the local police force, said the students had been doing a team-building exercise, traversing the river, when they were overcome.
Police are investigating safety aspects of the expedition, but another officer, Inspector Steve Mastrovich, suggested it was being viewed as an unfortunate accident. "They've just been caught in the wrong place at the wrong time," he said.
New Zealand's spectacular and rugged wilderness is world- famous, and many of the country's inhabitants pride themselves on their close connection to it. Mountaineering, hiking and sailing are common pursuits among the nation's 4.2 million people.
Grant Davidson, the chief executive of the centre that organised the trip, said the conditions had appeared safe and there had been no warning of the heavy rain that quickly developed in the area.
"I am comfortable this was a normal activity we had with this age group in these sort of conditions," he said. "Obviously, if we had known or predicted about the pulse of water, we would not have been there.
"The amount of water that came down the canyon is particularly unusual. I've never seen it rise in that short a period of time in the 24 years I've been here."
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Friday 24 May 2013
Temperature: 3 C to 12 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 7 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West