Three years after a chop­per crash near Wanaka killed Auck­land con­struc­tion com­pany boss Jerome Box, in­ves­ti­ga­tors are yet to de­ter­mine the cause. It’s a case the Trans­port Ac­ci­dent In­ves­ti­ga­tion Com­mis­sion says is im­por­tant for he­li­copter safety in New Ze

North & South - - In This Issue -

Three years after a fa­tal chop­per crash near Wanaka, in­ves­ti­ga­tors are yet to de­ter­mine the cause. Donna Chisholm asks why it’s tak­ing so long.

You get the phone call that up­ends your life on a Satur­day af­ter­noon at the sub­ur­ban Auck­land mall where you’re tak­ing your kids to the movies.

Where are you? your friend asks. Stay there, she says, I’ll come to you.

By now, you know this is bad, but not how bad. You keep ask­ing ques­tions, but you don’t be­lieve the an­swers.

A heli-ski­ing chop­per has crashed on a blue­bird day near Wanaka. Seven men are on board, in­clud­ing your friend’s hus­band and yours. Six sur­vive. Your hus­band is the only one who’s not com­ing home.

You don’t re­mem­ber much after that mo­ment, apart from the an­i­mal wail of your 12-year- old daugh­ter breaking down be­side you and the be­wil­dered look of dis­be­lief on the face of your 10-year-old son.

Adelle Box still strug­gles to be­lieve that she is this woman. It’s been three years since her hus­band Jerome, 52, was killed, but with the of­fi­cial in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the ac­ci­dent about to en­ter its fourth year, her faith in the sys­tem that is meant to tell her why he died, and

what might be done to save other lives, has gone.

Her life, and that of her chil­dren, will never be the same. “When Jerome died, we found our­selves at ground zero. The fu­ture has had to be rewrit­ten.”

Dave Bens­ley is film­ing on his iphone when the Air­bus AS350 chop­per (or “Squir­rel”) car­ry­ing him and his mates de­scends near the 2339m sum­mit of Mt Alta. Au­gust 16, 2014 is a clear, wind­less day, so there’s a fris­son of ten­sion when pi­lot Dave Matthews ap­pears to de­cide against land­ing the first time and cir­cles again be­fore mak­ing his fi­nal ap­proach.

The pi­lot’s al­ready told them this is the first time he has flown this par­tic­u­lar ma­chine, which is new to the ser­vice after a con­ver­sion in the United States from a medi-vac chop­per.

Doc­u­ments show the he­li­copter re­ceived its air­wor­thi­ness cer­tifi­cate from the Civil Avi­a­tion Author­ity just the day be­fore, so this trip is prob­a­bly its first com­mer­cial out­ing in New Zealand.

The short hop to Mt Alta, about 20km north-west of Wanaka, is the group’s third flight of the day; they’ve al­ready done one run in per­fect con­di­tions near Tre­ble Cone and spir­its on board are high.

“We seem to be com­ing in fast,” says Bens­ley, de­vel­op­ment man­ager of Auck­land’s Brit­o­mart Precinct. “I’m going, ‘Ahhh, we’ve got a prob­lem, a real prob­lem now.’ There was just si­lence. I can’t re­mem­ber any talk­ing at all. I can re­mem­ber think­ing, ‘It’s all over.’

“We col­lect a ridge with the ro­tor, and the nose of the chop­per head-plants and the back flips over, does a full som­er­sault and flips out. The whole bottom of the body just rips off, so the only thing left is the egg with the seats.”

The ro­tor blades, too, are wrenched off, leav­ing a gap­ing hole in the chop­per’s canopy as the ma­chine be­gins a 300m end- over- end roll down the moun­tain­side.

G-forces cat­a­pult out four of those on board. The first is prop­erty com­pany CFO Craig Peirce, who lands on his back­side in the snow, breaking his back in three places. Next comes Greg Mcleod, a floor­ing com­pany di­rec­tor, who is fired out about 10m down the slope from Peirce, and is bleed­ing heav­ily from a head wound. Heli-ski guide Mark Se­don comes out next. He has spinal frac­tures and is hunched on his hands and knees, but sends out a may­day call on the ra­dio he’s car­ry­ing.

Pi­lot Matthews, ejected an­other 10m down, is also bleed­ing from a head in­jury.

“We are rolling at a real pace,” says Bens­ley. His iphone is flung from his grasp. The phone, and the valu­able footage it con­tains, is never re­cov­ered de­spite in­ten­sive searches.

“It’s quite black and I think it’s all done. I’m con­scious the whole way down. I see the sky, be­cause there’s noth­ing above me, it’s all open now. I can’t be­lieve I’m still alive. The G-forces are so full- on your body is ab­so­lutely in con­tor­tion. I fo­cused on an­other sport I do: surf­ing. When you get slammed by a big wave, you try to go deep. If you re­lax, you’ll sur­vive it. If you panic, you’ll die. So that’s what I did. I said to my­self, just re­lax. So I re­laxed all the way down the moun­tain for 1000 feet. And ev­ery time it turns over, my head goes in the snow.

“Then, at the end of the rolling, I’m going, ‘How does this end? Are we stop­ping or are we fall­ing off a cliff here?’ Then we did start to slow down and fi­nally stop and I thought, ‘Please don’t stop with my head in the snow.’ But it didn’t. It came up, rocked, and came back on the side.”

By the time the chop­per comes to rest, only two men are left belted in their seats – both in the mid­dle of the chop­per: tech com­pany CEO David Reid, who was in the cen­tre-front seat next to the pi­lot; and Bens­ley, to the left of where Box had been seated di­rectly be­hind the pi­lot. Box is nowhere to be seen.

Bens­ley un­clips his seat­belt and falls into the snow. “The place just stinks of avi­a­tion fuel. I thought, ‘This isn’t over – it’s going to explode.’ All I know is from the movies. I’m think­ing, ‘It’s going to blow and I’m not out of this yet.’ I race around and un­clip Dave. He’s sort

“I’m con­scious the whole way down. I see the sky, be­cause there’s noth­ing above me, it’s all open now. I can’t be­lieve I’m still alive. The G-forces are so full-on your body is ab­so­lutely in con­tor­tion.”

of con­scious. I grab him and I’m moth­ered, but adrenalin is racing through my body. I just pull him as fast as I can about 30 or 40 me­tres away. Then I col­lapse be­cause I’m in so much agony.”

Bens­ley has neck and back in­juries and Reid has bro­ken ribs and a dis­lo­cated shoul­ter.

Ly­ing on his back in the snow, Bens­ley thinks they’ve all es­caped the wreck, and are far enough away to be safe should it explode. The men flung out at the top and those be­low shout to each other and there’s a head count. Box is miss­ing.

“I see a lit­tle thing of or­ange stick­ing out next to the wreck,” says Bens­ley. Box is trapped by the leg. “Jerome had his or­ange jacket on. I get up and just high­tail it back to the chop­per to pull him out. I get to him and I don’t try to pull him out ini­tially. I just turn him over and un­clip his jacket to try to do CPR.”

Trained in re­sus­ci­ta­tion, Bens­ley re­alises from al­most the first breath that his mate is gone. “There’s no life in him. When I blow into his mouth… it isn’t a sound you nor­mally hear when you do that. But I’m still not be­liev­ing it. I still think he’ll come back. I’m pulling with all my might to get him out and try­ing to push the chop­per off his leg.”

Peirce by this time has made it to the site. De­spite the de­com­pres­sion in­juries to his back, which aren’t di­ag­nosed for an­other three days, he’s sled­ded down the moun­tain on an avalanche shovel, bring­ing with him the first- aid kit, which had some­how landed next to him in the snow.

Matthews, too, has reached the site. He hits the kill switch on the he­li­copter’s electrics, mak­ing the fuse­lage safer.

Bens­ley re­fuses to give up on Box. “By the time it takes Craig to get down, I’m still there. They end up pulling me off him. I’m not let­ting any­one else near him. They say, ‘Dave, you need to get out of here. We all need to get out of here.’”

Peo­ple re­spond to tragedy and grief in one of two ways, Adelle Box reck­ons. You ei­ther don’t func­tion at all, or you go into over­drive. You sleep a lot, or you don’t sleep at all. She didn’t sleep. Still doesn’t.

But in­stead of pac­ing the floors in those sleep­less hours, Box went to work, por­ing over spread­sheets and spec­i­fi­ca­tions, ques­tion­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tors and do­ing her own sleuthing. “I have a slightly tech­ni­cal mind – I helped my dad re­build my first car mo­tor. I can’t help my­self.”

Slowly, over the course of months, she learned about he­li­copters, and what makes them fall out of the sky. She went to in­spect the wreck in a Welling­ton ware­house, asked why the seat­belts came adrift and why the en­gine hadn’t been ex­am­ined. She pored over flight man­u­als and flight data, fuel loads and wind di­rec­tion. She ques­tioned au­thor­i­ties about all man­ner of things. She

“They end up pulling me off him. I’m not let­ting any­one else near him.” DAVE BENS­LEY

The year 2015 was a very bad one for TAIC. In Oc­to­ber, an in­de­pen­dent re­port high­lighted short­com­ings with its in­ves­ti­ga­tion into a Septem­ber 2010 crash of a con­verted top­dress­ing plane, again in Fox Glacier, which killed eight parachutists and the pi­lot. TAIC orig­i­nally found weight and bal­ance is­sues caused the crash but sub­se­quently changed its find­ings, say­ing it was un­likely ei­ther was the pri­mary cause. The in­de­pen­dent re­port said me­chan­i­cal fail­ure couldn’t be ruled out, be­cause of TAIC’S de­ci­sion to al­low key parts of the wreck­age to be buried days after the chop­per went down.

TAIC had re­leased the re­port of its in­ves­ti­ga­tion in May 2012 – just 18 months after the crash. Stung by the later crit­i­cisms, the com­mis­sion could well have de­cided to pro­ceed more cau­tiously – and slowly – in fu­ture.

North & South has learned a draft re­port of the Mt Alta in­ves­ti­ga­tion has been re­leased to The He­li­copter Line for com­ment. But no one has told Adelle Box that. “The shut­ters have gone up,” she says.

In July, TAIC re­leased to North & South a list of air in­ci­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tions that re­main out­stand­ing. The Mt Alta crash is the old­est un­re­solved event. The re­port for a 2013 He­li­copter Line crash, a non-fa­tal land­ing col­li­sion at Tyn­dall Glacier in Mt As­pir­ing Na­tional Park, was re­leased on July 27. TAIC said it couldn’t ex­clude the pos­si­bil­ity that the pi­lot of the se­cond chop­per to land mis­judged his ap­proach, caus­ing the ac­ci­dent. It ex­cluded tech­ni­cal, he­li­copter per­for­mance and other en­vi­ron­men­tal fac­tors.

The last pho­to­graph of Jerome Box was taken less than 30 min­utes be­fore the crash. He’s with Se­don, and his mates Reid and Mcleod, in a val­ley near Tre­ble Cone, as they wait for the chop­per to take them to Mt Alta. In it, he is point­ing to the place where he would die.

If there is any com­fort for Adelle and their chil­dren, Bri­ana and Xavier, it’s the joy on his face that day.

Box lived for trips like this one, in­dulging his sport­ing pas­sion with his clos­est mates. An ad­ven­turer who thrived on the adrenalin rush, he was the in­sti­ga­tor of the heli-ski­ing day – a high­light of the friends’ an­nual trip to Queen­stown. That year, 10 of them, mostly from the con­gre­ga­tion at St Paul’s Angli­can Church in Auck­land, made the trip. Five paid around $1000 each for the heli-ski­ing; the oth­ers spent the day ski­ing at Tre­ble Cone.

IT and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions ex­ec­u­tive Ben Green was the or­gan­iser for the long week­end. They had de­cided who’d go on the chop­per over na­chos and a beer by the out­side fire at the Cardrona pub the day be­fore. “I was keen,” says Green, “but there were only seats for five. I’d have gone if there were six.”

He re­mem­bers look­ing up at the he­li­copters fly­ing over­head as the land­bound five took a lunch break at Tre­ble Cone. “It was an ab­so­lutely stun­ning day.

• OC­TO­BER 2013: One he­li­copter clips an­other on land­ing at Tyn­dall Glacier, Mt As­pir­ing Na­tional Park. Both are THL chop­pers. Thir­teen peo­ple are air­lifted from the glacier; the pi­lot of the de­scend­ing he­li­copter suf­fers se­ri­ous head in­juries.

• JAN­UARY 2014: A THL chop­per tips in snow on Richard­son Glacier, near Mt Cook, while at­tempt­ing to land. The five on board, in­clud­ing four over­seas tourists, are un­hurt and there is no TAIC in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

• AU­GUST 2014: Jerome Box, 52, of Auck­land, is killed when a THL Squir­rel AS350 he­li­copter crashes on land­ing at Mt Alta, rolling 300m down the slope.

• SEPTEM­BER 2016: A THL Squir­rel AS350 rolls while at­tempt­ing a snow land­ing above Ar­row­town. An Aus­tralian tourist suf­fers leg in­juries, but four other pas­sen­gers, also tourists, are un­hurt.

The Trans­port Ac­ci­dent In­ves­ti­ga­tion Com­mis­sion and Civil Avi­a­tion Author­ity both in­ves­ti­gate air crashes, but for dif­fer­ent rea­sons. TAIC’S role is to de­ter­mine cause, but not to ap­por­tion blame, while the CAA has a health and safety pros­e­cu­to­rial role, in line with its re­spon­si­bil­ity for avi­a­tion safety and se­cu­rity.

Former CAA in­ves­ti­ga­tor and now pri­vate air ac­ci­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tor Tom Mc­cready says while the agen­cies are meant to co-op­er­ate, “some­times they get at log­ger­heads with each other”.

Un­der the TAIC Act, the com­mis­sion is in charge when an ac­ci­dent is un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion – in fact, the CAA must seek TAIC’S per­mis­sion to carry out a par­al­lel in­ves­ti­ga­tion. TAIC can also de­cide the ex­tent of CAA’S ac­cess to the wreck­age and crash site. CAA must lay any health and safety charges within 12 months of the crash.

TAIC was founded in 1990, ini­tially to in­ves­ti­gate air ac­ci­dents only, but by 1995, its ju­ris­dic­tion had been ex­tended to rail and marine ac­ci­dents.

The CAA’S first ac­ci­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion was pub­lished in 1998. Mc­cready says its in­ves­ti­ga­tions unit was launched as a re­sult of TAIC de­cid­ing not to look into some crashes. TAIC in­ves­ti­gates only those ac­ci­dents that it be­lieves have sig­nif­i­cant im­pli­ca­tions for trans­port safety.

Mc­cready says al­though three years and longer can seem an in­or­di­nate length of time for an in­quiry, in­ves­ti­ga­tors are han­dling mul­ti­ple cases. He says there can also be “a lot of pol­i­tics going on in the back­ground that we don’t ap­pre­ci­ate”.

chief com­mis­sioner Jane Meares told them, “and if there is any rea­son why this re­port is tak­ing so long, it is be­cause we are en­deav­our­ing to find the right an­swer.”

She said new lines of in­quiry had opened up and were be­ing re­viewed, but the com­mis­sion was con­scious of the tim­ing of the re­port’s re­lease, with the health and safety pros­e­cu­tion of The He­li­copter Line due to be­gin in Novem­ber. “We must be mind­ful of the prej­u­dice that might re­sult were we to re­lease a re­port at an in­ap­pro­pri­ate mo­ment.”

Feasey told them he was dis­gusted with TAIC’S per­for­mance. “I’m in the con­struc­tion in­dus­try and I get bet­ter re­sponses when there are ac­ci­dents in con­struc­tion. We run a bet­ter show. Our re­ports come out quicker. Our fam­i­lies are not tor­mented or taken through the same grief.

“Please,” he told them, “give Adelle re­sponses. Please sup­port her.”

The He­li­copter Line di­rec­tor Mark Quick­fall told North & South that per­cep­tions the com­pany was try­ing to stall the in­ves­ti­ga­tion were wrong. “We are work­ing hard, be­ing open and up­front. This is a tragic ac­ci­dent and

as much as any­one we want to know what caused it. We have co- op­er­ated fully with TAIC on ev­ery­thing. I cer­tainly un­der­stand Adelle’s frus­tra­tions – they are prob­a­bly equal to our own. [ The time be­ing taken]... it’s dis­ap­point­ing for ev­ery­body. We have full sym­pa­thy for Adelle Box and the pas­sen­gers who were on the flight.”

How­ever, he says it’s in the com­pany’s and the wider in­dus­try’s in­ter­ests to es­tab­lish the cause “of this ac­ci­dent and tragedy”.

“We have con­ducted heli- ski­ing in the Southern Alps for over 35 years, fre­quently land­ing at the Mt Alta site. We are as keen as any party to un­der­stand what TAIC be­lieve oc­curred. Based on our own in­ves­ti­ga­tion, THL has a view on cau­sa­tion and taken steps to ad­dress what we be­lieve was a key con­tribut­ing fac­tor. Be­cause the mat­ter is be­fore the court, I’m un­able to dis­cuss this as­pect fur­ther.”

He says he can­not com­ment on many of the other is­sues raised be­cause of the pend­ing case, which also re­stricted the com­pany’s abil­ity to deal with the fam­ily. “The lay­ing of charges against an or­gan­i­sa­tion means, based on le­gal ad­vice, very lit­tle in­ter­ac­tion with vic­tims is pos­si­ble. This seems to be a re­gret­table con­se­quence of an ad­ver­sar­ial sys­tem.”

The court case was due to be heard in March this year but was ad­journed at the eleventh hour when a key wit­ness, a con­trac­tor at The He­li­copter Line, went over­seas. Quick­fall says The He­li­copter Line was not to blame for the wit­ness’s fail­ure to ap­pear. “The CAA failed to tell him that he was re- quired as a wit­ness. It did not sub­poena him or ad­vise him when the hear­ing date was, and it tran­spired that he was in Alaska at the time of the hear­ing.” The CAA de­clined to com­ment be­cause the case is be­fore court.

He­li­copter Line chop­pers have been in­volved in four snow- land­ing in­ci­dents since 2013. After the most re­cent, in Septem­ber 2016, then- CEO Jeff Stani­land said pro­ce­dures would be re­viewed.

Quick­fall said the com­pany car­ried out a “to­tal re­view of all our oper­at­ing pro­ce­dures. You al­ways need to look at your­self. We work hard day in and day out to avoid any ac­ci­dents or in­ci­dents and we re­viewed the whole busi­ness, from gov­er­nance, to hard­ware we op­er­ate, our train­ing, right the way through. Did we dis­cover any­thing ma­te­rial to this case? No, noth­ing ma­te­rial, but we have made changes to our op­er­a­tions – they were more tweaks than any­thing.”

TAIC CEO Hutchin­son told North & South the Mt Alta crash “is an im­por­tant case. It’s im­por­tant for the he­li­copter fleet for New Zealand and the world. Ev­ery­thing we do and say af­fects not only peo­ple in our lo­cal­ity, but has fleet-wide im­pli­ca­tions, so there is a very strong thresh­old for en­sur­ing those af­fected glob­ally are heard and we get it right.”

She says a “mul­ti­tude of par­ties” are in­volved, and an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of three years or more isn’t that un­usual.

“I know Adelle is frus­trated by the length of time, but the com­mis­sion’s task is to dive deep into the events it looks at. It has to fol­low pro­ce­dural rules and be very sure nat­u­ral jus­tice re­quire­ments are met.”

TAIC is legally bound not to speak about ac­tive cases, she says, “so it gets very dif­fi­cult for us to ex­plain”.

“It’s like, fair point, why does it take so long, but there is no deep mys­tery in it. The com­mis­sion is try­ing to do its job and make sure it’s kicked ev­ery stone, un­der­stands what’s going on, and at the same time meets its statu­tory obli­ga­tions for nat­u­ral jus­tice.”

TAIC aims to have straight­for­ward cases com­pleted within two or two-anda-half years and “by and large we are achiev­ing that”.

She says as many as 30-35 TAIC in­ves­ti­ga­tions in all three trans­port modes are open at any one time and can be com­pli­cated when in­ter­ested par­ties are over­seas. In the Mt Alta case, the he­li­copter is French­man­u­fac­tured, and the makers are au­to­mat­i­cally par­ties to the in­quiry. She says she’s not aware of de­lay­ing tactics by The He­li­copter Line or oth­ers.

In­ter­na­tion­ally, in­de­pen­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tors aim to com­plete in­quiries within a year, where pos­si­ble. “But there­after, if that’s not pos­si­ble, at least keep those af­fected in­formed, and get at the truth. The fo­cus is on find­ing the an­swers.”

Al­though Adelle Box sup­plied the weights of those on board to TAIC in March 2015, more than six months after the crash and be­fore TAIC sought the in­for­ma­tion, Hutchin­son says that didn’t mean they would never have been taken. How­ever, she ac­cepted it was a “fair point” that the sooner they were taken after the ac­ci­dent, the bet­ter.

TAIC told Adelle Box early this year that its re­port should be fi­nalised by Novem­ber. In May, she was told it “may not even be this year”. It’s be­com­ing a bit of a pat­tern. In 2015, the com­mis­sion said it should be ready by early 2016 – but in 2016, the date shifted to early 2017. The com­mis­sion no longer gives es­ti­mated re­lease dates. “They made a rod for our back,” says Hutchin­son.

Adelle Box, mean­while, wor­ries at what she sees as a lack of trans­parency, and the risk that lives may be lost be­cause re­ports aren’t com­pleted more promptly.

“I’ve been very on to it for a long time. I was so full of hope that the sys­tem would un­cover what had hap­pened,” she says. “But it does get to the point where it breaks you. And that’s where I am. I just feel bro­ken by it.” +

The chop­per at Queen­stown Air­port be­fore the fa­tal flight.

Adelle Box says she’s lost faith in the crash in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

De­voted dad Jerome Box with his chil­dren Bri­ana and Xavier in 2011.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors at the crash site where­jerome Box died in 2014.

Help reaches the crash site on Mt Alta. Pi­lot Dave Matthews, his head ban­daged, sits with one of the res­cuers.

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