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Families of Fox Glacier Victims Write to John Key

London, 5th May 2013

Families of Fox Glacier Victims Write to New Zealand Prime Minister Following Inquest Verdict

The families of four tourists killed in 2010 in an aircraft accident at Fox Glacier, New Zealand, have joined forces publicly for the first time to write a joint letter to the New Zealand Prime Minister John Key. The letter calls on Mr Key urgently to institute stronger safety enforcement across the country. 

The parents of Glenn Bourke, of Victoria, Australia; Patrick Byrne, of County Wexford, Ireland; Bradley Coker, of Hampshire, United Kingdom; and Annika Kirsten, of Reutlingen, Germany, have also expressed a lack of confidence in the current leadership of New Zealand's Civil Aviation Authority to carry out this role in non-scheduled aviation.

The letter follows publication today of the report of the inquest into the deaths of the nine who died in one of New Zealand's worst aircraft accidents in recent history.   The others who died were the pilot and four "tandem masters" – crew who assist passengers to undertake a parachute jump whilst attached to them.   The inquest follows on from investigation by the New Zealand Accident Investigation Commission (TIAC) whose report was published in April 2012.   The Commission in its report also made criticisms of the CAA.

Noting that the need for action is "compelling and urgent" the letter expresses sympathy for the families of the pilot and tandem masters who died in the accident: "We are deeply conscious that there are other families who have also suffered the most grievous possible loss".  They tell the Prime Minister that all have suffered "indescribable grief and anguish", telling Mr Key that "it is only now that we have been able to come together in this way".

In their letter, the families express their gratitude for the kindness of the people of New Zealand and Fox Glacier in particular since the accident, but the families say they regard the findings of the Accident Report and the inquest "disturbing".  They call on the Prime Minister now to "take decisive and unequivocal action to reassure the world that New Zealand is a very safe place to visit”.  They ask Mr Key to change the safety regime to "incentivise companies to prioritise health and safety" and call on the Government to ensure the resources are available to enforce the existing regulations: "The reports make it clear that the CAA requires additional resources to ensure the monitoring and control required ... will your Government ensure the necessary resources are provided?"

The letter also calls for significant changes to the way liability is dealt with in New Zealand, saying "the system is weighted against the victim".   The letter calls for the concept of negligence to be introduced into the legal system and the introduction of a private accident insurance scheme for companies, which the parents tell Mr Key, will ensure "companies have to maintain standards to keep insurance policies valid”.

The families of the four tourists also call for Mr Key to outline his proposals to ensure that the taking of controlled drugs plays no part in any accident.   Although the inquest discounted the role that this played, the TIAC report noted that two of the crew of the Fox Glacier aircraft had taken controlled drugs in the period before the flight.   

Letter:

5 May 2013
John Key Private Bag 18041
Parliament Buildings Wellington 6160
New Zealand
Dear Prime Minister
Plane crash at Fox Glacier on 4 September 2010 Report of the Findings of the Coroner

For the first time since the terrible event at Fox Glacier, the families of the tourists who were killed – Glenn Bourke of Victoria, Australia; Patrick Byrne of County Wexford, Ireland; Bradley Coker of Hampshire, England; and Annika Kirsten of Reutlingen, Germany – have come together to write to you following the publication of the Coroners report of the inquest into the wholly avoidable deaths of our loved ones.

We are grateful for the kindness and compassion shown to us by so many New Zealand people, and in particular the people of Fox Glacier, whose kindness has meant so much. Nothing we have to say should be taken as a criticism of the people of New Zealand. The Coroner, in conducting the recent inquest, showed us particular consideration in enabling the proceedings to be streamed across the internet so we could follow them if we were able, and in showing sensitivity in which parts of the evidence were to be read out.

Not all of us were able to find the inner strength to follow the proceedings, which were of necessity very distressing, but we have been kept informed as to what has been said.

Although we are writing as the families of those tourists who were killed, we are deeply conscious that there are other families, of the five crew members who were killed, who have also suffered the most grievous possible loss.

We know you are aware of the indescribable grief and anguish the loss of our loved ones has caused us. It is only now that we have all been able to come together in this way.

The disturbing findings of the Air Accident Report, together with what has been heard at the inquest, have compelled us to write to you jointly to urge you and your ministers to act decisively in responding to this and other recent accidents. This is necessary to restore New Zealands pre-eminent position as a destination for adventure sport tourism for young people.

We have already seen signs that the New Zealand Government is minded to respond to the issues raised by this event and other accidents on which inquests have still to be held.

-2- We believe it is essential that your Government takes very decisive and unequivocal action to reassure the world that New Zealand is a very safe place to visit. It has been said in New Zealand that tourists who come to take part in adventure sports “know the risks”. This seems to us an astonishing attitude. It is incumbent upon the authorities to do everything in their power to make sure that all activities are as safe as they possibly can be. This is something that can, and must, be done.

We have never considered the outcome of the inquest to be an opportunity for comfort or in any way to afford a sense of satisfaction. No process or action can ever bring back our loved ones, nor the loved ones of the others who died in this crash.

However, we believe that in his report, the Coroner reinforces many of the points about the regulation and enforcement of safety in New Zealand. We were startled to read, for example, that the owner of the company operating the aircraft involved in the accident which killed our loved ones was concerned enough about the competence of the pilot that he put a notice (“Trim”) into the aircraft window to remind the pilot to undertake an elementary check before take-off.

We continue to lack confidence in the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to regulate safety in this type of activity in New Zealand. The Coroners report finds that the CAA were not even aware that the new operator at Fox Glacier was using a new method of passenger restraint successfully and safely which is potentially life saving if adopted across the country. We find this deeply disappointing and shocking. You should consider whether those in management at the CAA are the best people to ensure the future safety of the public in New Zealand.

Companies in New Zealand need to be incentivised to prioritise health and safety. We have the following suggestions and look forward to hearing your explanation in relation to each: 1. We understand that the government has seen it appropriate to introduce new regulation in relation to obtaining an Operator Certificate in the form of Part 115. We also note that the new Safety Audit Standard requires operators to renew their Safety Audit Certificate every three years. These are all positive steps, however, it seems to us that a complete lack of regulation was not the cause of the crash. It is the enforcement of that regulation that needs to be addressed. The report makes it clear that the CAA requires additional resources to ensure the monitoring and control required by the new Safety Audit Standard is effectively implemented. Will your government ensure the necessary resources are provided at the earliest opportunity?

Further, the Transport Accident Investigation Commission report recognised major failings on the part of the CAA, the engineering company and the aircraft operator. The CAA has the power to prosecute and we can not understand why they have failed to act. Is this also a resourcing issue? Regulations must be enforced and companies held to account in order to deter future incidents. This is a very important point. All of these organisations were partially responsible for what happened at Fox Glacier, and yet none has been prosecuted, fined or incurred any sanction.

-3- 2. When companies fail in their duty to protect the public, the law in New Zealand does not allow the injured party to hold them to account. The system is weighted against the victim. We want to see the concept of negligence introduced into New Zealands legal system. This would create a level of fairness that is currently completely lacking. We want to see New Zealands legal system require companies to exercise reasonable care when they act. The ACC system establishes no blame and does not compensate proportionately.

3. We suggest the introduction of a privatised accident insurance system. Companies have to maintain standards to keep insurance policies valid. At a minimum, broaden the scope of the Accident Compensation Corporation so that it doesnt pay out on a fault basis and blame is attributed. This will also enable a better assessment of health and safety laws.

We understand the government is introducing a level of regulation around drink and drugs. The fact that two of the crew had levels of controlled drugs in their bloodstream at the time of the accident is an aspect that has shocked us. This is not something that would be permitted in scheduled passenger aviation and should not be permitted in this type of flying. We would be grateful to have sight of your proposals in this regard.

It is not a viewpoint, but a matter of fact, that a legal system that does not recognise negligence, a system whereby a sole insurer pays out on a no-fault basis, and a system whereby laws and regulations are not monitored and no-one is prosecuted or held to account in any way inevitably leads to a lowering in standards across the board. You should note that these young people were not killed in an adventure sports accident but a plane crash. This is an issue that extends far beyond adventure sports.

Our aim in taking issue is to stop more people, including New Zealanders, being seriously injured or, worse still, dying, as a result of negligence and having absolutely no recourse.

We hope you will agree that the need for firm and visible action remains compelling and urgent.

We look forward to your response.

We are releasing a copy of this letter to the media.

Yours sincerely, Signed on behalf of, and with the consent of, Karen Bourke, mother of Glenn Bourke, Australia Brede and Hugh Byrne, parents of Patrick Byrne, Ireland Chris Coker, father of Bradley Coker, United Kingdom Susanne Kirsten and Werner Schmidt-Kirsten, parents of Annika Kirsten, Germany

ENDS

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