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More on the Collapsing Hopuruahine Bridge

Today this video became very noticed in New Zealand media. It shows the moment in early September 2015 when the Hopuruahine Bridge collapsed along the Lake Waikaremoana Great Walk, with four people on it. I wrote about this earlier [1] and linked to much of the earlier coverage.

The latest coverage has been driven by the sudden availability of a video of the accident. This could be compared with when it actually happened, which triggered a short flurry of attention after which it promptly vanished when easy sources of information dried up.

The incident could easily have been extremely serious, and those involved were very lucky that it wasn’t. With the limited info available at first, potential significance for risks elsewhere, such as other back-country bridges, was high. The build date of the bridge, mid-1990s and roughly the same time as when DOC’s inconsistent building practices produced the Cave Creek Platform death trap [2], really should have triggered alarm bells of something worth active journalistic investigation. If those bells were ringing, they weren’t acted on.

It’s ultimately up to editors to justify why they did or didn’t pursue stories, but I was disappointed that no media organisation followed this one beyond initial interviews with officials who weren’t there, and re-printing the occasional media release. If any effort was made to track down those people actually involved, it wasn’t stated anywhere. No media organisation sent anyone to the end of the road to actually look at the damaged bridge, take a photo or two, and perhaps even get an independent assessment of what might have happened for comparison with DOC’s explanation. Instead, editors seemingly decided that it wasn’t worth pursuing.

With this video of a “TERRIFYING BRIDGE COLLAPSE” suddenly re-igniting interest, however, TVNZ (just as one example example) has suddenly discovered [3] that DOC already published its initial findings on how the bridge failed — something which barely reached the news when it was released 2 weeks ago [4]. To summarise, though, the new coverage is still not about the actual bridge collapse or its implications. It’s about showing off a shocking video and trying to get a bigger slice of the attention from those who share links on social media.

I personally do have confidence that DOC and Tuhoe are willing and capable of responding to the incident with the attention it deserves, but at the same time I’d like to feel confident that there’s some good critical validation of what we’re being told and of what’s happening. Otherwise we’re all just being drip-fed whatever information suits a very small group of officials who have a possible conflict of interests. That’s bad for anything which resembles transparency.

Therefore in the absence of enthusiastic journalism, it’s great to finally have some direct information on the incident which hasn’t been filtered through government employed communications staff. The video provides a direct look at what happened, but it’s only part of the new information. As importantly, its source comes with blog posts providing accounts from those directly involved, describing the incident and what followed from their own perspective.

The first post [5] [alternative Google Translate from French [6]] was published on 7th September, shortly after the incident. It briefly describes what happened, followed by an account of how the group were well looked after by Tuhoe representatives.

The second post [7] [a rough translation by Hazel Phillips [8]] appeared a couple of days ago with the video, and also describes what happened in more detail.

This independent account reveals at least one inconsistency with what was reported earlier. For example, while there doesn’t seem to be a dispute that they fell 8 metres, earlier reports had stated that they fell into about 2 metres of water [9]. By their own account, they’d fallen into water “just up to our knees”. If that’s genuinely true then the survival of three people with only minor injuries seems remarkable. In any case it appears to be a point of dispute.

The account also expresses how disappointed the group are with New Zealand’s Department of Conservation. Despite the claims of Mike Slater, DOC’s Deputy Director General for Conservation Services, giving an impression that all was well by telling NZ media they were “well looked after” [10], as they apparently were by representatives of Tuhoe, their own view of DOC is one of frustration. They’ve claimed that DOC staff were of no help at all after the event. Even having asked many questions, they’ve received no answers, weren’t kept informed and could only learn about any progress of the investigation through media reports. It’s another point of dispute.

It’s hard to know without more context whether these claims are fully justified, and it needs to be kept in mind that DOC hasn’t had an opportunity to respond to any of these accusations. But considering the sub-standard media coverage we’ve had until now, it’s also refreshing to actually see an alternative side of the story besides what’s been sent out from official channels.

3 Comments (Open | Close)

3 Comments To "More on the Collapsing Hopuruahine Bridge"

#1 Comment By Ashley On 10 October, 2015 @ 10:49 am

I only have two comments on this incident:
1) Are these bridges not inspected from time to time? I would have thought it mandatory.
2) From my recollection these bridges have a load limit posted at each end of the bridge – usually for no more than 2 or 3 persons “on the bridge at one time”. Can someone confirm this or correct me please?

#2 Comment By Mike McGavin On 10 October, 2015 @ 5:58 pm

Hi Ashley. Yes they are inspected. Every DOC structure has an asset number in a national database (even signs all have their asset number tag nailed to the back if you look) and is subject to routine systematic inspections according to what the engineers deem appropriate for the structure type. DOC would have records of when inspections took place and what was ticked off or noted at the time. According to a DOC press release at the time, [17]. Whether the inspections are inspecting the right things and whether DOC could reasonably have been expected to know about this fault, either during building or from later inspections, is another question.

Basically DOC’s investigation put the issue down to a rare manufacturing problem with the specific batch of chain that was locally sourced at the time of building. Of the 4000-odd bridges, they went through the 111 which use chains, determined that none use the same size of chain, and from that determined that no chain from the same batch of that manufacturer could possibly be being used in any other DOC-managed bridge. Mike Slater (of DOC) [18].

As for the bridge load limit, the signposted limit was for 10 people and they were well under that. Even despite this, good engineering practice would have designed the bridge for a much higher load than what’s sign-posted (this was clearly agreed by everyone during the Cave Creek inquiry in the mid-90s). I’ve read from random people on the internet claiming to be engineers that for this type of issue, it’s completely possible that stress from a single person might have caused the faulty chain to snap just as easily. Someone with the right qualifications would really need to confirm.

#3 Comment By BushwalkingBlog On 11 October, 2015 @ 1:45 pm

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