December 10, 2023

‘I know danger when I see it’: Father pulled son from Abbey Caves trip over safety concerns

Related video: Nicki Wakefield speaks to AM about the Abbey Caves tragedy.

A parent of a Whangārei Boys’ High School student is grateful he pulled his son out of a caving trip that turned fatal after having concerns about the weather. 

A body was found late on Tuesday evening in the search for a missing student after earlier reports the group of 17 from the school got into trouble in Abbey Caves during severe weather.

The victim’s family told Newshub they’re deeply grateful for the help and support from search and rescuers and they wish for their privacy to be respected.

With the death causing an uproar in the community, a parent of a Whangārei Boys’ High School student said he pulled his son out of the trip because of the safety concerns he had. 

Scotty Booth has a son in year 11 and sent an email to the school on Monday night asking if the trip would go ahead given there were weather warnings in place, Stuff reported.

Booth decided to pull his son out of the trip when he didn’t hear back from the school. 

“I became concerned about the safety of the trip when we received an email saying they would be caving instead of rock climbing, due to forecasted rain,” Booth told Stuff. 

“The school should have known better – there was only one teacher and an instructor there. There shouldn’t have been a fatality on a school trip.”

Booth wasn’t the only parent to complain about the trip, with the parent of a year 12 student, who also attends the school, saying those responsible for organising the caving trip need to be “held to account”.

“All of us locals know you do not go near these caves in any rain,” the parent said in an email to AM. “Anyone at the school including the principal will need to answer some serious questions.”

Following the student’s death, security guards were posted outside the school on Wednesday because there are “a lot of upset people”.

“In light of these events, we have taken extra precautions to ensure the safety of staff and students,” Northern Districts Security told Newshub in a statement. 

“We have implemented security measures on-site and are working closely with police to ensure that the school remains a safe and secure place for everyone.”

While many in the school community have questioned why the trip went ahead despite weather warnings, the first person to raise the alarm has described the teacher with the group as a hero.

“I was the person who phoned 111 yesterday in this tragedy. I’m still pretty cut up about it – it’s pretty tragic losing a young man like that.

“He had a lot left to give. I’m really sorry we couldn’t help or do more,” said witness Caleb Salisbury.

Salisbury was paving concrete next door when the heavens opened and the rain rushed in. He said the teacher in there with the students was a hero who put his life on the line.

“That man was pinned against the rocks pulling the boys out from beneath the ledge,” Salisbury said. “That man was devastated. He collapsed when he realised there was one missing.

“He was absolutely mortified.

“That teacher’s a hero. He saved a whole bunch of lives.

“There would be a whole bunch more dead kids in there. He did his absolute best.

“He was underwater as long as he could handle it.”

A hapū representative also wanted people to take a breath, stop piling criticism on the school and focus on providing love to everyone that’s been devastated by the tragedy. 

“The message on this day is to take care of each other and especially our young ones who are affected by grief and impacted by this,” Ngāti Kahu o Toro-ngare hapū kaikōrero Nicki Wakefield told AM on Thursday. 

“So here in Whangārei, we have the rolling [teacher] strike as well, so many young people out of school today. So just thinking of those young ones and extending aroha to them, taking care of each other, that’s kind of our key focus today as the hapū.”

Whangārei Boys’ High School principal Karen Gilbert-Smith told Newshub in a statement their “thoughts and aroha” are with the whānau and the students, even more so now a body had been recovered.

“It is really important for me to let you know how devastated we are that one of our whānau have lost a much loved, and treasured, son and brother,” she said.

“The impact of this tragedy is being felt widely amongst our school staff, students and community.

“I realise that people have lots of questions but I simply am not in a position to provide answers at this early stage out of respect for the whānau.”

A Givealittle page has been set up to help support the boy’s whānau and has so far raised more than $55,000.

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