Depths of despair

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Nearly 18 months after skydiver Tyler Nii plummeted into Lake Wakatipu, his family say they’re “dead inside” and desperate for answers.

Answers that, according to officials, are still many months away.

The Niis are the second family in a week to raise concerns about the way investigations are handled.

Californian tourist Nii, then aged 27, landed in Lake Wakatipu after a tandem skydiving trip with NZONE went terribly wrong on January 10 last year.

He hasn’t been seen since and is presumed drowned in its icy depths.

His family back in the United States say they’re frustrated by the length of time it’s taking to determine what happened, which has left them grieving and in limbo.

But the Transport Minister says while he has sympathy for them, “investigations need to be done thoroughly to ensure the findings are robust”.

It comes as a report obtained by the first time, just what went wrong.

A Summary of Evidence report compiled during the Civil Aviation Authority’s (CAA) investigation found there were no breaches of any Acts.

The report outlines how Nii and tandem master James Stavro were the last of nine pairs to make their jump.

During the main parachute deployment there were a “significant number of line twists” and Stavro made the call to perform a cutaway.

The reserve chute also failed to deploy correctly, which “resulted in the tandem pair entering Lake Wakatipu at a high rate of descent”.

On entering the water, Nii was told by Stavro to pull the life jacket activation tag, but it didn’t inflate. Stavro then tried to inflate the jacket by blowing into the inflation pipe, but it appears that didn’t work either.

The cause of the failure to inflate hasn’t been determined.

“A short time later, despite the best efforts of the TM (tandem master) the victim, Mr Nii, submerged out of view,” the report states.

The report notes it’s “very rare” for a properly-maintained parachute to fail.

It also details changes NZONE has made since the incident, including water landing workshops and the inclusion of a jet ski on site.

The changes weren’t because there were any issues with their processes, but rather they were proactive steps, the report states.

Tyler Nii’s older brother, Kevin Nii, says the family is frustrated and struggling to get answers.

“We all feel really dead inside, there’s nothing we can do.

“There’s no help we’re receiving from anybody, we’re dealing with all these f***ing groups and nobody’s doing anything to help.”

He says their biggest frustration is how long the investigation is taking.

“There’s no information, they don’t give us anything. We’re still battling with them, they’re not answering any questions.

“We email them a couple of times a week, but we just get non-answers.”

They also haven’t been able to get a death certificate for Nii, meaning even closing his bank accounts is impossible.

“Nobody does anything without a death certificate, so we’re pretty screwed.”

He also claims the family’s had no contact from NZONE.

Local top cop Detective Senior Sergeant Malcolm Inglis says the company did reach out to the family through police, but the family declined to meet with them.

The lake is around 250 metres deep in the Kingston Arm, and very cold, so Nii’s body can’t be recovered and will likely never surface.

Another tourist who was at NZONE on the day tells shad concerns about safety practices.

London nurse Natasha Owen was due to skydive shortly after Nii.

She says she was never shown where her life jacket was, or how to use it.

“I didn’t feel like we had a safety briefing,” she says.

“There was one guy who I just didn’t want anywhere near me, didn’t want him putting on my gear. He was just laughing, joking, messing around, getting told off by other members of staff.”

She also feels the jumps were “rushed”.

“It was pretty bad weather, the whole day was delayed by a few hours.”

Owen says she’s never been contacted by anyone investigating the incident.

The CAA report found Nii’s safety briefing was appropriate.

NZONE general manager Clark Scott declined to comment.

A spokesman for Transport Minister Phil Twyford says his boss can’t comment on the family’s concerns because “investigatory practices are an operational matter and it would also be inappropriate for the minister to comment while there is an ongoing investigation”.

When asked about funding for the CAA and TAIC, Twyford said in a statement that both organisations are “sufficiently funded to do their jobs”, noting the CAA has undertaken a significant programme of work to improve their regulatory effectiveness.

“My sympathies go out to the Nii family and I understand their frustration,” Twyford said.

“These types of investigations need to be done thoroughly to ensure the findings are robust and this takes time.”

The funding for both the CAA and TAIC is reviewed regularly, he said.

A spokesman for the CAA refuses to confirm if the organisation has even investigated the incident.

He says TAIC is the lead investigation agency, so “unfortunately we’re not able to comment while that investigation is underway”.

A TAIC spokesman says their report is at least six months away.

The organisation currently has about 30 open cases, he says.

TAIC doesn’t investigate every transport incident, he explains – just the ones where improvements could be made to improve transport safety in New Zealand.

“We find out what went wrong and why, and recommend what needs to occur in the future to change that.”

Investigations generally take about 12-18 months.

daisy.hudson@scene.co.nz