December 10, 2023

University flatmates drowned while trying to cross swollen river during tramp, coroner rules

Mount Aspiring National Park.

A coroner’s report has found two University of Otago students drowned while trying to cross a swollen river during a tramp in Mount Aspiring National Park.

The report, released on Monday, found flatmates Ashwini Rasiwala, 20, and Kevin Lee, 22, fell into the Makoarora River and drowned while trying to cross it on February 6, 2020.

Rasiwala’s body was found on February 7 by a tramping party and Lee was found the following day by a jet boat operator.

Lee, a pharmacy student, and Rasiwala, an international French student, left Dunedin on February 5 to begin their tramp. Coroner Alexander Ho said the pair did not alert family or friends of their intended plans.

Ho said the pair planned on completing the multiday Gillespie Pass Circuit tramp, a 58km loop in Mount Aspiring National Park. A sleeping mat and sleeping bag in Rasiwala’s pack and Lee’s computer at home with the Gillespie Pass Circuit webpage opened “indicates they were intending to complete a multiday tramp”, Ho said.

On February 2 and 3, up to 300mm of rainfall was predicted in the area. While there had been no rain for 24 hours by February 6, the day the pair died, rivers were still higher than normal and running at twice their background flow. 

Ho found Lee was an experienced tramper but with an unknown experience of river crossings, whereas Rasiwala was an inexperienced tramper.

The coroner received a report from Mountain Safety Council New Zealand (MSC), which identified possible factors that led to the pair’s deaths. It did note it’s rare for one contributory factor to lead to an incident and is usually due to several.

It said river warning information on Department of Conservation (DoC) signs, the pair’s lack of overall tramping and river crossing experience, the impact of heuristics – or mental shortcuts that influence decision-making – and the flooded river are what led to their deaths.

MSC said the coroner’s findings highlight the dangers of river crossings. It gave recommendations, which the coroner endorsed – to help prevent more river crossing deaths. These are: 

  • Learn how to assess whether a river is safe to cross and how to cross safely. Videos, guides and eLearning courses are freely available on MSC’s website.
  • When encountering an unbridged river, stop and assess whether it is safe to cross. Signs that a river is unsafe include: water moving faster than normal walking pace; discoloured, cloudy or surging water; visible debris in the river such as tree branches; and the sound of rolling boulders on the riverbed.
  • Carry a form of emergency shelter such as a tent or tarpaulin so that if a river is assessed as unsafe to cross there is no pressure to cross to get to a hut for shelter.
  • Be prepared to turn back or change routes to avoid the need to cross a dangerous river.
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