A student swept away on a school caving trip was meant to be rock climbing, but bad weather forced the trip underground instead, Stuff can reveal.
The year 11-Whangārei Boys’ High School student remains unaccounted for, more than six hours after the outdoor education class he was with got into trouble in Abbey Caves, near Whangārei.
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Why the group of at least 15 students was underground given the weather warnings that were in place for the area is now being questioned. One person Stuff spoke to said the school played “Russian roulette” with children’s lives.
Stuff has obtained an email that shows how the school had factored the weather into their plans for the trip.
The email, from the school’s head of outdoor education Stevie Huurnink was sent to parents last Friday.
It said due to “forecasted rain” they had to modify “planned trips”.
“Initially, we had rock climbing scheduled. This has been changed to caving.”
A parent who said her son’s friend had been in the group who entered the cave a day earlier, said he told them the water had been “above their heads” in some areas.
“What possessed them to go ahead with the trip when the weather was so bad today? I don’t understand,” the parent said.
Late on Tuesday afternoon police issued an update that the search had been suspended until Wednesday morning.
Superintendent Tony Hill said he could confirm 17 people were in the caves – 14 students, plus another one unaccounted for, and two adults.
The search was expected to resume at first light and a cordon would remain in place overnight. The school was being supported by the Ministry of Education’s traumatic incident team, Hill said.
A relative of the boy has asked the community for “prayers” on social media, as he was “lost” in the caves, they said.
Whangārei Boys’ High School principal Karen Gilbert-Smith said in a statement the event had been “hugely upsetting” for the school.
“An Outdoor Education class attended Abbey Caves this morning on a caving trip and encountered a severe weather event.
“One of our students is currently missing, Search and Rescue are currently searching for the young person.”
The rest of the group who came out of the cave were being supported by emergency workers from Search and Rescue and St John Ambulance, Gilbert-Smith said.
“In time we will seek to understand how this situation occurred, but for now I ask that we stay united as a WBHS community and provide support where required.”
Further information would be provided when they knew more about the situation, she added.
The school would be open on Wednesday to ensure students could “maintain a sense of routine”.
One mum, whose son is in the same year as the missing student, said it was “bloody mental” that the group went out.
“It shouldn’t have happened full stop.”
Emergency services learned the group was in difficulty about 10.35am, Northland district commander Superintendent Tony Hill said.
“A group of people have since made it out safely, however one student is currently unaccounted for. We have Police Search and Rescue and USAR crews responding to the area.
“The incident is still very much developing and we will provide further updates as they become available.”
Hill said his thoughts were with the whānau of the missing child as well as those involved in the group outing and the school.
Severe Weather Warnings and Watches are in force for many places in the west and north of the country, including areas that have already seen a very wet start to May.
Chairperson of the school’s board, Andrew Carvell, said he was notified of the incident by the school’s principal on Tuesday morning.
“It’s a very traumatic situation for [those] involved. We’re hoping for a positive outcome,” Carvell told Stuff.
Carvell said the board was working with the school to ensure support was provided to students and others affected.
“At the moment it’s a tragic situation and we need to deal with what’s in front of us. We anticipate there are going to be questions. I think those questions are reasonable questions to ask.”
Carvell said he did not know specific details about the events that had unfolded.
“Our thoughts are with the family.”
A heavy rain warning had been in place for Northland since 9am, according to MetService.
According to the Whangārei Boys’ High School’s calendar, a year 11 outdoor education group were scheduled to go to the caves today.
The course costs $250, which covers high-quality gear and experienced, qualified staff, according to the school website.
The school’s standard operating procedures, posted on its website, stated the teacher in charge of the trip would check the weather periodically during the days leading up to a school trip.
“On the morning of the trip they do a final weather check so they can make an informed decision whether the weather is suitable for the trip.
“Local radio broadcasts and the New Zealand Transport Agency website will be used when heavy rain may cause road closures, but the safety of the activity is not compromised.”
According to the Whangārei District Council website, the Abbey Caves are prone to flash flooding. It suggests people check the weather forecast before visiting.
Some in the community have been critical of the school’s decision to visit the caves when heavy rain was forecast.
One local resident who lives not far from the caves said you have to be careful “even on a good day”.
“It is completely irresponsible of the school to not have postponed the trip. I just can’t believe it.”
The woman said MetService had been warning there was heavy rain coming for days and today’s incident made her feel “sick to the stomach”.
Many locals have also expressed anger that another incident has occurred again following after the Mangatepopo Canyon Disaster in 2008.
Six students and one teacher from Elim Christian College were killed at the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre in a flash flood after a thunderstorm caused the Mangatepopo stream to rise rapidly.
An in-depth investigation found significant failings at the centre that led to the disaster and it was fined $480,000 for health and safety breaches.