Glaring Inconsistency In Evidence At The Catherine Peters Manslaughter Trial

We’ve noticed a glaring inconsistency in the evidence being presented at the trial of Alistair McWhannell, Crag Adventures, for the manslaughter of Catherine Peters.

Back at the depositions hearing in August the Crown said that Mr McWhannell “had overseen 80 jumps from the bridge (and) failed to take proper care with Ms Peters’ second jump”

But in the evidence presented before the court yesterday the Prosecutor Evan McCaughan said Mr McWhannell had supervised close to 20,000 bridge-swings prior to Ms Peters’ fall.

Now, which is it?

How many jumps did McWhannell supervise in the period October-March and how does the prosecution explain the enormous difference in the figures?

Evidence presented before the court alleges that McWhannell was distracted by another woman whilst preparing Catherine for her second jump:

“The Crown says McWhannell was the only one in charge of the swing and he failed to do his job.

Mr McCaughan told the jury the rope was not secured to the bridge. “His job was simple, he had to do it for every jump,” he said.

Ms Peters was on her second jump that day but the Crown alleges McWhannell was distracted by a woman who was meant to jump after her. McWhannell had allegedly met that woman on the internet and intended to do a tandem jump with her.

It proved a fatal distraction.

He knew the rope was too long the moment she jumped,” Mr McCaughan told the jury.

For the first time today, Ms Peters’ family came to court. In a statement they describe how they miss her.

“We miss terribly her bouncing into a room, enthusiastic about her latest idiosyncratic discovery, her humour, her insightfulness and wisdom, her friendship and mentoring, her sense of fun.

“The man who loved Catherin support one another in this ongoing heartbreak.”

Ms Peters would have turned 20 last Saturday.”

Also at the depositions hearing it was revealed that even a novice to bridge swinging spotted that both ends of the rope were unsecured, something that escaped the attention of all the trained staff operating the tourist attraction.

A novice bridge swinger stared at the rope that was supposed to support Catherine Peters, wondering why it was untied, moments before her fatal fall, a court has heard.

Michelle Williams told a depositions hearing in Palmerston North District Court yesterday that she saw both ends of the rope by her feet as Ms Peters, 18, was preparing to jump.

“I saw the points of a rope standing by my feet . . . coming out of the rig.

“For a little bit I was trying to find out how the rope was attached to the rig because I thought it was a little weird…

you know each job has been done because you did it yourself.

Safwan Zainal, a trained rock climber who assisted McWhannell on the bridge that day, said he saw another helper, rather than McWhannell, reset the rigged ropes several times after a swing.”

We’re reminded of the comment that “complacency and an underestimation of risks” contributed to a canyoning tragedy that killed 6 students and their teacher in another outdoor adventure tragedy in NZ.

At the time there were no required safety standards for bridge swinging in New Zealand:

” Scott Woods, the previous owner of City Rock, the Palmerston North climbing gym managed by McWhannell, said though there were no required safety standards for bridge swinging, he had taken it upon himself to draft guidelines and had trained McWhannell in using them.

It was often easier to have one person – a “jump master” – in charge of everything. “If that person’s doing all the work they are fully responsible. It does create a check of sorts because you know each job has been done because you’ve done it yourself”

We are left wondering wondering why such critical elements such as the length of a rope and making sure tie it off can ever be allowed, surely ‘human error’ is foreseeable?.

Where are the fail-safes in this ‘safe’ system of work and why did safety inspectors allow this practice to continue? if they were aware it was happening at all.

Update 16 June 2010 – Climbing Wall Guidance Issued May 2010
Amazingly no official safety guidance for something as established as Climbing Walls existed in New Zealand at the time of a serious ‘accident’ at Ferg’s Rock and Kayak, Wellington in 2008.

Following the incident the Dept of Labour issued a “hazard bulletin”, including a safety checklist, to 35 operators of climbing walls nationwide to help them ensure they take all practicable steps, as required by law, to protect their customers. Official safety guidance on climbing walls has been around since 2001 in the UK.

“The Department had been concerned at the growing number of wall climbing accidents and believes the industry’s development of guidelines is important to improve safety standards. The Department will work with the industry as required to facilitate this.
The need for such guidelines was endorsed by the Greymouth coroner last month in his findings on the death of a woman after a climbing wall accident in Greymouth in April 2009.
The Department’s key messages to climbing wall managers are to ensure beginners are properly instructed in belay procedures and demonstrate competence before climbing, and to ensure constant supervision of the climbing wall.  They also need to review safety procedures to ensure they meet minimum standards and ensure their lead instructors hold suitable New Zealand Outdoor Instructors Association qualification.” source

Isn’t about time that similar guidance and support was issued to operators of bridge swings?