Current Affairs

Elim canyoning tragedy parents' faith and forgiveness 10 years on

It has been 10 years since six students and a teacher from Auckand’s Elim Christian College drowned trying to escape a swollen torrent. The parents of one of the students look back on the tragedy.

By: Lynley Ward

Nearly 10 years ago, a heartbroken Nikki Bray sat on the ledge where her teenage daughter Natasha spent her final moments before she was swept to her death in a flooded North Island canyon.

Shrouded in shadow inside a cavernous gorge overhang, the Auckland mum and her two young children, Ben and Olivia, quietly prayed, sang and shed tears alongside the Mangatepopo River.

The tranquil setting on the warm summer's day in December 2008 masked an unthinkable tragedy just eight months earlier when six students and a teacher from Auckand's Elim Christian College drowned trying to escape a swollen torrent.

With husband Andy too ill to travel south, the family waded through water to reach the wet rocky perch where Natasha and 10 others waited before launching off in ones and twos at five-minute intervals, washed downstream by the forceful current.

"That was terribly, terribly hard," remembers Nikki. "We just wanted to see where they were and without the torrential rain it was a beautiful place. You just could not imagine it on that day."

Many years later, she recalls the incredibly sad but special time she shared there with her remaining children.

"We were very quiet. We sat there and cried together and said a prayer for all of them.

"As we finished our prayer we each threw a rose in the water and watched it float away."

In the decade since 16-year-old Natasha drowned in the floodwaters that raged through the narrow gorge, her remarkable attitude to life has been an inspiration to thousands of young people around the world.

Despite the teen's rich legacy, her parents naturally wish their eldest daughter had survived the school camp tragedy.

Says Andy, "We think our family is so small now. All of a sudden, it's tiny without her. She's so vivacious and full of life and we miss her. We'd much rather have her with us."

The adventure-loving teen was one of nine pupils and a teacher from the East Auckland college who, along with an instructor from the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre, were caught out by the rising river during the ill-fated canyoning trip.

Six pupils – three girls and three boys – and their teacher Tony McClean drowned, with only three pupils and centre instructor Jodie Sullivan managing to get out of the water alive.

The outdoor centre later pleaded guilty to health and safety charges and fined $480,000 in fines and reparations to the victims' families.

As families and the school community mark 10 years since the tragedy, the Brays, who first visited the scene of their daughter's drowning with other bereaved parents the following month, admit at times it felt like they were caught in a nightmare.

"You kind of feel like every day is going to be a life sentence," says Nikki, remembering the first heartbreaking years after Natasha drowned.

But the committed Christians say their faith and support of friends, family and their church community have seen them come through a harrowing period in their life.

"We were quite adamant we were going to grow stronger through this," says Andy who, with his wife, heads Family Life New Zealand, an organisation dedicated to strengthening marriages and families.

"Our memories of Tash were unique to us, so it actually bound us together because we chose to move towards each other."

Nikki, overwhelmed by grief, describes the first few weeks of the tragedy as "totally surreal".

She recalls wanting to hide away, clutching to everything that reminded her of her treasured daughter.

Natasha on the high rope at the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre a day before the tragedy.

"I just talked about Tash all the time with Andy. Every memory, every song, every piece of clothing was just all Tash."

"I would say we weren't present," says Andy, who played a pivotal role fronting media conferences alongside college principal Murray Burton.

"We were going through the motions. If we didn't have people feeding us or taking care of us, you'd just fall apart."

In the midst of the turmoil, the pair decided how they were going to manage their grief and navigate the desperately bleak time, aware their two youngest children were depending on them.

"I think those first two years, maybe the first three years, did go very, very slowly," explains Nikki. "You felt you were having to do life one foot in front of the other. But I look back now and I think it's just flown by."

In line with their faith, the couple were determined to forgive those responsible for their daughter's death – something that started within days of the tragedy happening and continues 10 years later.

A memorial seat looks out over Opoutere Beach where Natasha would enjoy hours in the surf at the family bach.

They admit it hasn't always been easy, with the inquest finding the outdoor education organisation wanting, although there were no criminal charges laid over the tragedy.

Explains Nikki, "Ultimately, if we chose not to forgive the bitterness just destroys you and we thought we don't want to do that. Those people suffered as well, those people at the scene, children sweeping past – I can't imagine – so we thought this has happened and we've got to deal with it."

Adds Andy, "But it's not as simple as that. We do forgive but then at moments of resentment or disappointment, you revisit the loss and the mistakes, and you've got to forgive again. It is an on-going process."

The Brays say initially the seven families affected by the tragedy supported each other as they dealt with the pain of losing children.

And while circumstances have separated the once close-knit group of parents, Nikki says four mothers still get together around April 15 each year to mark the day their lives changed forever.

Andy, who has dealt with a myriad of health issues including three kidney transplants, cancer and a stroke, says the couple focused on finding purpose in Natasha's untimely death.

A film company involved in the pupils' funerals and attracted by Natasha's zest for life approached the Brays asking to make a documentary about her.

The film, Jumping in Puddles, based on a saying coined by Natasha and best friend and fellow drowning victim Portia McPhail about making the most of every circumstance, had been viewed by schools and youth groups internationally, with the Brays often receiving emails telling them how much Natasha has inspired them.

The documentary that celebrates Natasha's zest for life.

"I guess one of the mitigating things that we wanted to come out of this is we so looked for purpose in her death and it's been profound how…" Andy's voice falters, "…it's very fulfilling when you see how her life is being used to help others."

"One thing we said to each other was that we didn't want this pain to be wasted, so we looked for ways to see how we could bring something good," adds Nikki.

Since the tragedy the Brays have kept little bits of Natasha around their home, including a handwritten prayer chart her parents discovered days after her death. "Tash had a lovely simple faith," says Nikki.

"She wrote her prayers out on this big piece of paper that's stuck in her closet, so that's still there."

Guests to their Pakuranga home are greeted by a doormat specially made by Andy with the Jumping in Puddles motto splashed on top.

Nikki with a picture of beloved daughter.

The couple say despite her death, Natasha is still very much part of her brother and sister's life as they enter adulthood.

"The thing that's lovely about them is that they talk about Natasha all the time," says Nikki.

With Olivia newly married, Nikki wonders if Natasha had survived, would she have found love or even had the couple's first grandchild? "She loved kids passionately," says Nikki. "She talked about doing speech therapy with young kids but who knows? She would have done something with youth."

While some families of the pupils who died will make the trek to Tongariro National Park this year to commemorate the 10-year milestone, the Brays will attend a memorial at the East Auckland college. "You just kind of go with what you're feeling at the time," explains Nikki.

In the meantime, Andy hopes the lessons learned from the tragedy will not be lost on the centre's new leadership and the wider outdoor adventure industry – but he's not holding his breath.

"I just hope there's change in the industry. I don't think there is. We do worry that the culture hasn't really changed – we hope that it's not for nothing, that they are doing a way better job of taking care of these kids no matter whoever is in the outdoor industry. We hope they don't forget how much they need to be accountable."

Adds Nikki, "We lost a lot."