It was supposed to be their dream first family holiday, but it quickly turned into a nightmare.
And now the Department of Conservation (DoC) may find itself in legal hot water over a freak incident that left Wellington woman Selma George badly injured and her husband fearing their children were dead.
George is just starting to walk again, and remains traumatised by her terrifying ordeal, after a large tree toppled on to her and her family near the Queenstown Shotover Jet site in January.
An investigation report compiled by DoC and obtained by Mountain Scene shows significant failings, including that the government department failed to identify the tree as a hazard, or carry out any maintenance on it.
The report also recommends its findings be shared across the department ”as it is likely that there are other similar circumstances in DoC”.
Speaking publicly for the first time since the incident, George says DoC is to blame for ”negligence”.
George sustained multiple fractures, and she’s receiving counselling to help her recover from the mental trauma of the incident.
”I can walk a little with the walking frame, just inside.”
She and husband Jerin Varghese are considering taking legal action against DoC.
She, Varghese, and their children Dalin, then 5, and Daphney, then 2, had been in Queenstown for just a few hours, on what was their first holiday as a family, when the incident happened.
Varghese says the family were on their way back to Queenstown from Arrowtown when they decided to stop and watch the Shotover Jet boats from a picnic table under a tree by the river.
”It had been two or three minutes before it fell on Selma and the kids,” he says.
A statement given by the pair to DoC, also provided to Scene, also reveals the shocking moment Varghese believed his two young children had been killed by the tree.
According to the statement, Dalin’s head was pinned by a large branch, and he was bleeding from his eyes, ears, mouth and nose.
Varghese, on the other side of the table at the time, believed Dalin had been killed. He recalls saying to his wife: ”Dalin is gone. He’s my first boy, and he is gone.”
He couldn’t see Daphney, but also believed she had been killed.
Bystanders managed to lift the tree enough to get the trio out, and helped with first aid until emergency services arrived on the scene.
Dalin spent three days in intensive care. He had a broken arm, trauma to his heart and lungs, and his face was swollen. But he’s now back in school.
Daphney was discharged after a short while in hospital with a concussion.
George spent four days in Dunedin Hospital before being flown to Hutt Hospital, where she spent 10 days.
She has had three surgeries since the incident. She suffered a left hip dislocation, broken left pelvic socket and broken left femur. Varghese says doctors believe it could take up to two years for George to fully recover from the incident.
As well as the ongoing medical issues, the family are also facing financial repercussions.
George, a nurse, is unable to work.
She says her parents have come over from India to help look after their two young children.
”It’s hard because I wanted to see my parents, but not in this situation.”
DoC Wakatipu operations manager Geoff Owen says it’s been a ”really traumatic experience for this family and our thoughts continue to be with them”.
”We’ve been working closely with the family to ensure they have access to the full range of support available to get them through this healing process, and continue to be in regular contact.”
Investigation finds issues
The investigation report paints a picture of confusion over who was responsible for the 80-year-old tree.
The tree was on a `marginal strip’ of land, on Crown land managed by DoC.
Some of the land is leased by Shotover Jet, but that does not include the marginal strip (although they do operate across it).
The report notes DoC didn’t assess and maintain the tree in question because it wasn’t identified as a hazard.
”The investigator believes all trees on a highly visited reserve should be recognised as a potential hazard thereby justifying regular checks.”
The ”immediate” cause of the incident was ”very strong gusty and swirling winds on the day, an ageing tree with a decaying root base below ground level, and a sandy soil base”, the report states.
But a primary cause was also the failure to identify the tree as a risk to the public.
The report also notes there was no safety plan in place for the site, and that most Wakatipu safety plans hadn’t been reviewed.
A raft of corrective actions were recommended, including regular arborist assessments of trees at the site, discussing the establishment of extreme weather event procedures with tourism operators, and reviewing the memorandum of understanding with Shotover Jet, Go Orange Rafting and Canyon Food & Brew Co.
Owen says an inspection carried out by a qualified arborist on the day of the accident found the fault in
the tree was in the root ball below ground level, which is ”unlikely to have been identified during standard maintenance checks”.
He says DoC is responsible for the management of the marginal strip, and is working with other occupiers/leaseholders operating at the site to review
health and safety plans and procedures, including hazard identification processes and being clear on roles, responsibilities and obligations to staff and