Cave Creek

On 28 April 1995, 17 students from the Outdoor Recreation course at Tai Poutini Polytechnic at Greymouth and the Department of Conservation’s Punakaiki Field Centre Manager crowded onto the viewing platform high above Cave Creek in Paparoa National Park on the West Coast of the South Island. The platform collapsed and fell about 30 metres into the “resurgence” below - the place where the water from the cave returned to the surface. As a result 14 people lost their lives and the other four were injured, some very seriously.

What happened?

In April 1994, Department of Conservation workers finished constructing a viewing platform which was built out over a cliff at Cave Creek, in the Paparoa National Park. The platform was built so that visitors could look down a 40-metre chasm to see the headwaters of Cave Creek come out from an underground cave system.

On 28 April, 1995, a group of students and tutors from the outdoor recreation course at Tai Poutini Polytechnic in Greymouth visited the site as part of a field trip to study the limestone formations and caves in the area.

As the party walked into the bush, it split into two groups. The larger group of 18, including the Punakaiki Field Centre officer, reached the viewing platform first.

At 11:25am, as the 18 people moved onto the platform, it tipped off its base and fell onto the boulders and rocks of the creek-bed below, taking the victims with it. One student later described how he “rode” the platform down, holding onto the handrail.

Rescue attempts

The second group reached the point where the platform had been almost immediately after it collapsed. The Polytechnic tutor and two students climbed down to the scene of the accident, while the other conservation officer and another student went for help.

They had to run back to the start of the track where the group’s vehicles had been left, but the keys were not in them. The DOC officer went back to the scene of the accident with warm clothing from the vans.

The student ran on along the road to the State Highway, carrying a note which gave details of the accident location and emphasised the need for rescue helicopters. Finally he reached a house and phoned the Greymouth police. It was now 12:15pm, almost an hour after the accident.

Ambulances were sent from Greymouth and Westport while helicopters in Christchurch were alerted.

Two hours after the accident a Greymouth police constable made it on foot into the accident site and reported that the injured needed to be lifted out as soon as possible.

Using helicopters and stretchers, four of the injured were lifted out. One was suffering from severe spinal injuries.

By 5:30pm 14 bodies had been winched up and flown out by helicopter.

How many died?

14 people (13 students and one Department of Conservation field officer) died.

Other events and outcomes

It was later found that the plans for the platform had been designed and approved by people who did not have engineering or design qualifications. The on-site construction of the platform base had been carried out by a working party of DOC staff members. None of the members of the group working on the platform was a qualified builder or engineer.

The platform had been built off-site and then had been flown in to Cave Creek by helicopter to be put in place. However, the plans for the installation of the platform were not taken to the site, and so were not followed. The bolts which were supposed to secure the platform to the steps were taken to the site, but without a drill, so nails were used instead.

When the steps to the platform were poured some time later they were not secured properly to the platform. This concrete was supposed to act as a counter-weight for the platform to help hold it in place. Steel which was supposed to tie the platform to the counterweight had disappeared, and no other steel was ordered or used.

A Commission of Inquiry found that the Department of Conservation had acted illegally and negligently in constructing the platform, and that there had been a series of mistakes that had led to the collapse of the platform. It also pointed out that the Department had not been given enough resources to do its job properly. Because of this, projects were carried out on limited budgets, “making do”.

The project had not met the requirements of the Building Act, which was being extended to cover government departments at the time the platform was being planned and built. There was no building consent for the platform. Signs stating the maximum number of people allowed to go on the platform at a time had not been put in place.

Compensation of $2.6 million was paid out to the victims’ families.

There were no prosecutions as a result of the deaths, but the Department of Conservation’s West Coast regional conservator resigned after the Commission of Inquiry’s report came out. The Minister of Conservation, Denis Marshall, resigned in May 1996.

In the three months following the tragedy, 15 of DOC’s 106 viewing platforms throughout New Zealand were closed for repairs.

A memorial plaque to the victims of Cave Creek was unveiled in 1996.

In 1998, three years after the Cave Creek tragedy, the track was opened again to the public, with new stairs to replace the old ones which had been removed. The viewing platform was not rebuilt.

In a 2005 interview, a survivor of the collapse said he was worried that some of the group shaking the platform had led to the collapse, but official opinion was unchanged that the platform was dangerous and would have collapsed regardless.

More information and sources

Disasters

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