14 die at Cave Creek

28 April 1995

Cave Creek disaster memorial (Shellie Evans Flickr)

Fourteen people standing on a viewing platform at Cave Creek in Paparoa National Park on the West Coast died when it suddenly collapsed and fell into the creek-bed below. A commission of inquiry found that the platform was illegal and its construction had been faulty.

At 11.25 on a Friday morning, a Department of Conservation field officer and 17 students taking the outdoor recreation course at Greymouth’s Te Tai Poutini Polytechnic crowded onto the platform, which jutted out from the top of a cliff. They were part of a larger party which was visiting Cave Creek during a field trip to study caves and other limestone formations.

The platform suddenly tipped off its base and plunged 30 metres onto the rocks below, carrying all those standing on it. When the other people on the field trip arrived moments later, several climbed down the cliff-face to give what help they could, while others ran back down the track to go for assistance. There were no keys in the vehicles, so one student ran 6 kilometres down the gravel access road to the nearest house, near Punakaiki, and rang the police.

A Greymouth police constable reached the scene about two hours after the accident. The four injured survivors – one with severe spinal injuries – were winched up to helicopters, and by nightfall the bodies of the 14 deceased had been recovered.

After the accident, 106 DOC viewing platforms were closed for inspection; 15 needed to be repaired.

A commission of inquiry found that the Department of Conservation had made a series of mistakes in the design and construction of the Cave Creek platform, which had no building consent. It also observed that the department was not adequately resourced for the work it was asked to do. The resulting ‘make-do’ mentality had had fatal consequences in this case.

No one was prosecuted in relation to the deaths, but the Minister of Conservation (Denis Marshall) and the West Coast regional conservator resigned following the release of the commission of inquiry’s report.

The victims’ families received compensation of $2.6 million. A memorial was unveiled in 1996 and the track reopened in 1998. The viewing platform was not replaced.

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