John Williamson: The knock on effects of tragedy

The death of a student at Abbey Caves has columnist John Williamson reflecting on the changes brought about by tragedy. Photo / Michael Craig


The tragic death of a student during an outdoor education activity at my old school has caused some reflection about how high school education has changed and how quickly incidents can happen.

One such happened to our family almost 40 years ago. It was on a family holiday in the upper South Island in January 1985. We had visited my brother in North Canterbury and made our way, in a blistering nor-wester, across the Canterbury Plains and through Arthurs Pass. It was raining in Greymouth where we stayed and it rained most of the night.

We’d connected with a gold miner in Blackball through the late Cyril Chaplin, then president of Northland Chamber of Commerce. John, the gold miner, was West Coast Chamber president. We arrived at his old coal miners’ cottage, in mid-morning, still raining. Around 11am the rain stopped and we, two adults and three pre-teen children, headed to his claim.


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Nothing quite prepared us for the size and extent of machinery at his operation but we picked up a couple of shovels and a gold pan and headed for the small creek meandering through his claim.

John spotted a likely-looking small boulder, shifted it and dug a shovel full of gravel. Into the pan and with practised ease the glint of gold soon appeared. Excitement rose, career options were being discussed as we all had a go. It was an exciting time.

Next thing John cocked his head and yelled, “Get out, get out”.

His urgency was alarming but real, and we scrambled up the bank. By the time we got out, the gentle creek which was running over our toes was over our knees. A few seconds longer and we would have been in real trouble.


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It can happen that quickly and John was an experienced gold miner who knew the West Coast and his claim. It had been raining for 18 hours and, even though his open stream was gentle, he knew the warning signs.

Obviously, a similar situation happened at Abbey Caves in a closed cave system but with tragic consequences.

There were heroes that day who I hope do not get turned into villains in the excruciating aftermath that will go on. I hope that we all suspend judgment. We do not know all the circumstances and can only speculate on the outcome.

It’s events like these that change laws. Think of the Pike River tragedy. The identified inadequacies of management and the board, the enduring suffering for the families, the change in legislation into the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, and yet no one has been prosecuted for the fact that 29 miners lost their lives that day.

Rebecca Macfie’s book about the tragedy is a remarkable read about greedy, slack management and systems.

The new act changed the safety thinking and accountability for all industries and that extends to the roads as a workplace. The catalyst for the big changes on the road was the prosecution in 2019 of Higgins Contractors for the lack of any temporary traffic management in place, which resulted in three workers dying when a truck driver clipped their work truck and sent it into the roadside culvert they were working on.

The company paid a fine of $270,000 and was ordered to pay $494,611 to the families of the deceased, while the truck driver copped 250 hours of community service and $21,000 reparation.

These are eye-watering numbers for the company, and essentially the proliferation of road cones and traffic management on our roads has arisen from that.

Some say that has now gone over the top.

Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown is on record as saying that “Auckland Council spends over $145 million per year on temporary traffic management. I cannot accept the mantra of ‘safety at any cost’.”


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The proliferation of road cones and temporary traffic management is a costly and annoying imposition on the daily lives of Aucklanders. This proliferation of road cones is a result of an over-prescriptive temporary traffic management regime where there is little or no adjustment for the actual level of risk.

This thinking has to change. Many drivers would agree with Mayor Brown.

It is my hope that last week’s tragedy at Abbey Caves does not result in severe consequences for the school and its curtailment of outdoor education. Safety, after all, involves both a system and an education process.

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