New Zealand shocked by river tragedy

Six teenagers and their teacher who were killed in a river gorge in New Zealand when flood waters suddenly surged down on them had little chance of escape, their principal said on Wednesday.

New Zealanders were deeply shocked by Tuesday’s tragedy, which devastated a high-school 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 flood waters that streamed down the Mangatepopo River after a violent rainstorm.

”It is a tragedy which defies belief,” school principal Murray Burton told reporters. Students clutched each other in tears as Burton read a list of those who died during a special assembly on Wednesday at the school in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city.

Prime Minister Helen Clark expressed ”profound sympathy and shock” and introduced a condolence motion in Parliament.

”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,” said Clark, a mountaineer and wilderness lover.

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 a log when the waters surged, Burton said.

Officials said there was no apparent warning to the group before the river quickly rose in the narrow gorge.

”We understand that there was a flash flood which took the river probably triple, quadruple in height and equally in such a short time later, dissipated,” Burton said on Wednesday.

He said officials 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.

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.

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”.

Burton said the hiking group was well equipped with wet suits, helmets, life jackets and harnesses and that the students were in the care of an experienced guide. Those swept away were in a group of 12 that had separated from the main party.

District police Inspector Dave White said the students were 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, chief executive of the centre that organised the trip, said the conditions appeared safe and there was 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 sorts of conditions,” he told reporters. ”Obviously if we had known or predicted about the pulse of water, we would not have been there.” — Sapa-AP

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