Story transcripts

One Way Ticket

Friday, October 5, 2012

Reporter: Liam Bartlett
Producers: Gareth Harvey, Ali Smith

Every year, thousands of young Australians fly off for a gap year adventure. Their travels take them all over the world, often to poor and dangerous places that make their mums and dads fret.

But Karen Bourke wasn't worried when she waved her son off at the airport.

After all, Glenn was only going to New Zealand and that's almost as safe as home - right?

But the world capital of adventure tourism can be a deadly place as Glenn and eight others so tragically discovered.

Full transcript:

STORY – LIAM BARTLETT: If you’ve got an adventure fantasy, there’s no better place to make it real than here in ‘Lord of the Rings’ country. New Zealand is adrenaline central. And nothing’s more heart-stopping than 19,000 feet of sky-diving. But what was to be the highlight of Melbourne teenager Glenn Bourke’s New Zealand odyssey ended in death on a South Island airstrip.

SAM: The hardest thing for me is - was it quick? Did he know that he was dying? Did he know that he’s not going to live through this plane accident?

LIAM BARTLETT: This was a tragedy that was almost inevitable - the result of a string of failures. And despite damning evidence, no-one will accept responsibility for the deaths of Glenn Bourke and eight others - who died not in some far-off country, but just across the Tasman. You knew your agency had screwed up, didn’t you?

GRAEME: Not at all.

LIAM BARTLETT: Right after that crash?

GRAEME: No. Not correct at all.

LIAM BARTLETT: Like most 18-year-olds, Glenn Bourke was up for adventure – and he was ready to work for it.

KAREN: He got three jobs in the end, to save his money to get there, yes.

LIAM BARTLETT: What about this picture over here, Karen?

KAREN: That’s the last posting he put on Facebook.

LIAM BARTLETT: Glenn’s mum Karen encouraged him to see the world, following in the footsteps of his sister Samantha. And, after all, he was only going to New Zealand.

KAREN: It was just the thing the kids were gonna do - I never ever worried about it. I just encouraged them - go, enjoy life, do what you gotta do, you know?

LIAM BARTLETT: Can you remember that day, that last moment when you saw Glenn? What was the last thing that you said to him?

KAREN: Well, I dropped him off at the airport, and you know, I think I said to him be safe, and I got one of those rare cuddles that you get off your teenage boys at the airport. Which I thought was pretty impressive for an 18-year-old boy, yes.

SAM: I said “See you, Glenn,” and I gave him a big squeeze, and said have fun, you know, don’t do anything I wouldn’t do – so there was something there told me I needed to give him a cuddle. He needed to know, I needed to have that last squeeze.

LIAM BARTLETT: As first-time trips go, Glenn’s has it all. Whitewater rafting, bungee jumping, and on September 4, 2010, Glenn and three other young adventurers prepare for the ultimate - a tandem skydive over the glorious Fox Glacier.

KAREN: I knew he was going to sky dive. I knew he was going to bungee jump. I knew that he was going whitewater rafting. They were all the big plans.

LIAM BARTLETT: Among those onboard is 24-year-old Bradley Coker from London.

HAYLEY: There will never ever be another Bradley, and that’s what breaks my heart, is that we were perfect for each other. We were made for each other.

LIAM BARTLETT: Bradley and his girlfriend Hayley Denham had been in New Zealand just ten days - the latest leg of an epic world tour. And Bradley’s gap year was about to hit high-gear - doing what Hayley had done a week before - jump out of a plane.

HAYLEY: The weather was beautiful, the scenery was lovely, and he just had that attitude of “wow, you know, if there’s anywhere to do a skydive, let’s do it over a glacier, and let’s do it in New Zealand.”

LIAM BARTLETT: So he got off the bus, and said goodbye to you.

HAYLEY: Yes, that’s right, and he blew me a kiss, and I blew him a kiss back, and we waved goodbye, and then off he went.

LIAM BARTLETT: That was -

HAYLEY: - into the minibus, and that was the last time I saw him.

LIAM BARTLETT: Alive?

HAYLEY: Yeah.

LIAM BARTLETT: What neither Bradley nor Glenn know is that this aircraft is actually a crop duster, recently converted for skydiving. That’s significantly changed the plane’s weight and balance - and in aviation, weight and balance is a matter of life and death.

BRADLEY: Is it always this bumpy?

GLENN: Yeah, it’s normal.

LIAM BARTLETT: It is simply the wrong plane for the wrong job - in the words of the official investigator, an accident waiting to happen.

SAM: If Glenn had of said he was going skydiving in Thailand, we would have said no mate, think of another place. Why don’t you go to New Zealand - it’s the adventure capital of the world, and it’s safe. It’s hard to think - it’s hard to fathom.

HAYLEY: You are happy to accept that there could be a risk that your parachute might not open, there could be a risk that your foot gets tangled into your parachute upon jumping out of the plane.

LIAM BARTLETT: Whatever.

HAYLEY: Yeah, but you do not accept that there is a risk of the plane crashing.

LIAM BARTLETT: The aircraft taxies for what will be its ninth flight of the day. The pilot heads down the runway, oblivious to the fact that this time, the plane is not just dangerously out of balance, it’s fatally so. When it takes off, the nose suddenly kicks up - almost vertically. Inside, the passengers are thrown back, shifting the plane’s critical centre of gravity even more towards the rear. The aircraft stalls, turns on its wing, then plunges to the ground.

SAM: To know that the plane tipped, crashed and caught on fire quite quickly, as weird as it sounds, was comforting for me - to know that he didn’t - he probably didn’t sustain internal injuries, and he probably didn’t have the time to fear the plane crashing, ‘cause it all happened so quickly, and that sort of helped, in a way - to know that he didn’t suffer.

LIAM BARTLETT: Glenn’s death was especially cruel news for Karen and Sam. They’d lost a husband, a father, six years earlier to cancer.

KAREN: Physically ill is exactly how you feel. It’s like I’d been kicked in the guts. It was pretty horrific, yeah. I don’t know, I don’t think anyone should feel like this.

HAYLEY: I had a knock at the door – “Are you Hayley Denham?” Yes, yes I’m Hayley. “Can you come with us please?” I said what’s happened? I knew - I knew straightaway something had happened, and I just said no, no, no, no - I don’t believe you. I don’t believe you. And they said “Yes, there was a plane crash.” And then at that point, I literally broke down.

ELIZABETH: It’s really hard to remember everything because it was such a blur. I mean we were both just crying. It was just mad.

LIAM BARTLETT: Across the world in the UK, Bradley Coker’s sister Elizabeth, and his father Chris were devastated by the news.

CHRIS: What we got was the police knocking on the door at five o’clock in the morning and they came into this room and very quickly just hit us with the worst news anybody could ever want to hear – your son is dead. I banged my head on the wall I told them it couldn’t be possibly true and they said it is true.

LIAM BARTLETT: The official accident investigation report blames a tragic chain of events and oversights. Of seven individual findings, only one involves failure by the pilot, Chaminda Senadhira, to check the aircraft’s weight and balance. The other six implicate the New Zealand aviation regulator, for allowing the plane to fly without ever inspecting its major modifications.

GRAEME: At the end of the day, it's the decision-making by the pilot. That’s the cause of the accident.

LIAM BARTLETT: It’s the pilot’s fault.

GRAEME: It’s the - it’s the fault of the operator of the aircraft, yes. Largely, correct.

LIAM BARTLETT: So, better to blame a dead pilot than a roomful of live bureaucrats? Graeme Harris is director of the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority. The CAA - Civil Aviation Authority - responsible for aviation safety and standards, and there’s not one person in the office who’ll put their hand up and say I might have done something wrong? No one pays a penalty at the regulator?

GRAEME: I’m not aware that there were any particular failings by any individual at the time.

LIAM BARTLETT: If there was a failure in the regulatory system, and you’re the regulators, someone hasn’t done their job properly. How can you sit there and say no-one’s done anything wrong?

GRAEME: Well, because nobody has done anything wrong. I’m aware that the systems were a little slack at the time. In fact, that’s the wrong word.

LIAM BARTLETT: A little bit slack.

GRAEME: No, I did say I used the wrong word there. They could have been tighter.

LIAM BARTLETT: Do you think the regulator was doing his job in this case?

MAURIE: Not at all.

LIAM BARTLETT: Maurie Baston is an air-safety expert, formerly with Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority. He says blaming the pilot for this crash is nothing more than a bureaucratic cop-out. The CAA says, full stop, it was pilot error – it was the pilot’s fault. Do you agree with that assessment?

MAURIE: That’s rubbish. It is systemic failure. You can start at the bottom or start at the top, and you say, okay, the regulations are in place, the industry is supposed to do what they’re told, the regulator has then got to check and make sure that the industry is compliant.

LIAM BARTLETT: And in this case the regulator’s missing in action.

MAURIE: In this case the regulator didn’t regulate, as set out clearly in the report.

LIAM BARTLETT: So in all the variables that could have caused that crash, one was that the CAA was not doing its job properly - is that a fair comment?

MAURIE: That’s a fair comment. That’s a fair comment, yeah.

LIAM BARTLETT: What’s all the more tragic about this, is that appropriate laws are now in place - the CAA actually tightened up its rules just 10 days before the crash, ordering that all planes with major modifications be inspected by a CAA expert. But instead of grounding the aircraft until it was inspected, the CAA allowed it to keep flying. So the system tightened up?

GRAEME: Exactly.

LIAM BARTLETT: Ten days before the crash?

GRAEME: Correct. But as I say, tragically too late to pick up the particular modifications to this aircraft.

LIAM BARTLETT: That’s breathtaking.

GRAEME: Well, I would say with the benefit of hindsight, the resource allocation should perhaps - more of it should have been made to adventure aviation. Perhaps that’s true, yes.

LIAM BARTLETT: The CAA says they didn’t have the resources to carry out all those necessary checks.

SAM: Yeah, it’s not a good enough excuse, I don’t think. Get the resources. This is people’s lives. You’re in the air.

LIAM BARTLETT: It’s a tough question but who do you blame for Bradley’s death?

CHRIS: I think it, I really do blame the CAA. I do believe that they are the regulator and they are ultimately responsible to ensure that everybody involved in aviation is doing their job properly.

LIAM BARTLETT: You’re adamant that there are pen pushers sitting behind desks, who have blood on their hands?

CHRIS: I do feel that way.

ELIZABETH: I feel that way as well, I absolutely feel that way.

LIAM BARTLETT: While the CAA’s trying to shift blame to the pilot and the company, the families will find little comfort there. What the victims of that crash didn’t know when they boarded that plane was that no matter what happened – no matter what went wrong – the company wasn’t responsible. You see, here in New Zealand, when you take a risk in adventure tourism, you take all the risk, because companies here can’t be sued for negligence. Instead there’s a standard one-off compensation payment, so paltry that in this case it hardly covered the cost of flying the bodies home.

LIAM BARTLETT: What is it about, is it about a payout?

CHRIS: Justice for Bradley, no it’s not about compensation at all. What I’m really about is that nobody else gets a five o’clock knock on the door to tell them that their son or daughter’s been killed. I want justice for my son. My son did not deserve to die and certainly nobody else should in this way.

KAREN: I just want to know who’s going to change that? Who’s going to make it different? Who’s going to make the kids that will keep travelling to New Zealand and doing skydiving - who’s going to make them safe?

LIAM BARTLETT: Does the CAA plan on apologising?

GRAEME: Apologising to whom?

LIAM BARTLETT: Nine families would be a good start.

GRAEME: I don’t see a need to apologise. If you read the report, you’ll see that the CAA complied with all of the existing CAA rules and regulations at the time. I see no reason to apologise.

LIAM BARTLETT: New Zealand may not be saying sorry, but it has brought in new regulations for the aviation and skydiving industries. The question is, can it enforce them? But of course, that’s all too late for Hayley, and the plans she and Bradley had to start a family.

HAYLEY: There wasn’t a day that went past where we weren’t together, and to be without him every single day is horrible, it’s so hard.

LIAM BARTLETT: So that’s the last photo you have of him, that was taken.

SAM: Yeah.

KAREN: Yeah.

LIAM BARTLETT: And too late for the Bourkes, who must live with another death, and more heartache than any family should bear.

KAREN: Sometimes what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, I think perhaps. I think I’m a reasonably strong person. I don’t know why I had to lose my son as well as my husband. I have no idea.

SAM: My mum is as strong as an ox. She’s very strong, but this has really kicked her for six. She’s not doing too well. I don’t know how you get up every day without your son. It’s hard.

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