Driver fatigue was the likely cause of this year's tragic crash on the Para Para Road which saw four young people drown after their car plunged 150 metres into the swollen Mangawhero River.
That was the finding of Wanganui coroner Colin Riddet at yesterday's inquest into the deaths of Russell William Turner, 25, Steffan Whatitua Robinson, 17, Nicole Phillipa Emily Davis, 18, and Shannel Ngaire Paranihi. Miss Paranihi's body was never recovered from the river.
The families of the deceased gathered at Wanganui District Court for an emotional hearing on the June 16 crash. Sergeant Susan O'Neil, presenting the evidence, called constable Karen Chambers who described the details of the crash.
She said emergency services were first alerted at 10.35pm, and once at the scene it was clear a north-bound vehicle had gone off the road on a corner, smashed through a rail and fallen 100 to 150m into the flooded Mangawhero River below. Firemen abseiled down the cliff face to the river bank where they found crash debris including a cell phone and handbag.
Despite an extensive search, nothing was recovered that night, but daylight saw the car, a 1984 Mitsubishi Mirage, recovered from the river, containing the bodies of Mr Turner and Mr Robinson.
The official search continued for some days but was eventually called off. It was family members who discovered Miss Davis body on June 30, 5km downstream from the crash site.
Ms Chambers said the two men had been working as part of a railway gang at Kawaru and had finished work at 4:00pm on June 16 after starting at 7.30am, borrowed a car and drove to Wanganui to pick up the women.
Miss Paranihi was at her mother's house before she left with the others. "She said, 'See you on Friday, Mum', and left'.". Ms Chambers said Senior Constable Peter Bridge of Central District's Serious Crash Unit presented police evidence from the inspection and analysis of the crash site and vehicle. He said three factors were considered including environment, the vehicle and the driver.
"Environment wasn't a factor although the road surface was wet at the time, nor was there any mechanical failure that could have caused the vehicle to drift across the road," Mr Bridge said.
"Whether the driver was distracted or fell asleep is subject to speculation. It's suggested driver fatigue was a factor and the driver would only have had to fall asleep for less than two seconds and it would have been enough for this crash to occur." He said police had not been able to establish who was at the wheel at the time of the tragedy.
Good Health Wanganui pathologists doctors Emmanuel Lucio and Ian Sutherland also gave evidence of their post-mortem examinations of the three recovered bodies. The pair said all three died by drowning after the smash. Mr Sutherland said he believed Mr Robinson had been knocked unconscious in the crash and had drowned without coming to. Alcohol was detected in the blood of all three dead, but none were over the legal limit to be driving. Blood tests also revealed the two men had consumed cannabis in the hours before they died. Mr Riddet then explained that while Miss Paranihi's body had not been found, he had the power as a coroner to declare her dead given reasonable evidence. He said he was convinced she had been in the car and had died as a result of the crash.
"I realise this must be very distressing for those concerned and I do express my sympathy," he said to the families of the victims. "I wish to express my sympathy to all the relatives of these four young people whose lives were taken in this tragic circumstances."
While the men had consumed alcohol and cannabis in the hours before their deaths, Mr Riddet found tiredness was the more probable cause of the crash.
"It is likely one of the two men were driving, but even if one of the women were, there was an element of tiredness."
"They had worked from 7.30am to 4:00pm on the 16th of June and then travelled to Wanganui to uplift the girls."He said they were intent on getting back to Kawaru because they had to start work at 7.30am the next day.
"I have to say that was not a very good thing to do..I suspected tiredness is a greater cause of accidents than is recognised.
"I find each of the deceased died at around 10.30pm in the 16th of June in the Mangawhero River as a result of drowning when they accidentally ran off the road and fell into the river," Mr Riddet concluded.
© 2004 Wanganui Chronicle