Coroner praises lake rescue effort

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Queenstown’s Coastguard and fellow rescuers did everything possible to save two Frenchmen who drowned last year, coroner David Crerar says. 

At last Friday’s inquest into the Lake Wakatipu deaths of Queenst­own-based Raphael Soubrier, 21, and Yoann Firdion, 24, Crerar said he accepted the pair drowned. 

A furore erupted days after the attempted rescue when Para­flights co-owners Carrick ‘Rock’ McLellan and Chris Bradley – first on the scene – criticised aspects of the Coastguard-led operation and called for local operators’ knowledge to be taken into account in future. 

At the time, McLellan and Bradley said Coastguard asked them to leave where they were searching and to join an official grid search. The pair reluctantly diverted to where Coastguard wanted them to go – the lifeless bodies were later found near where the Paraflights’ pair was originally searching. 

Crerar, in an initial verbal summary up last Friday, said: “While the rescue search pattern area could have been more closely defined, I’m satisfied the Coastguard and all the other rescuers did all they could have done.” 

Crerar also noted Firdion and Soubrier’s errors of judgement were “self-evident”. 

The pair attempted a return trip from Queenstown Bay across Lake Wakatipu with inappropriate lifejackets and canoe, just one paddle and light clothing. They left their return trip and a later call for help till it was too late – and also failed to leave a “panic time” with friends. 

The pair called Paraflights at 9.53pm on December 6 in distress – 11 hours after McLellan had warned them about rough weather and offered them a lift back to Queenstown Bay. 

McLellan and Bradley were on the water searching 10 minutes later before being joined by other commercial operators and Coastguard. A helicopter pilot with night vision goggles finally spotted the two bodies in the one-metre swell just before 1am. 

Crerar: “My condolences to the families. It’s very sad to see visitors to our country pass away in these circumstances.”