One of New Zealand’s largest transport companies has admitted its bus was faulty when the brakes failed and plunged down a steep gully near Gisborne, killing three and injuring dozens more.
The Herald can now reveal previously unpublished details and accounts of the Christmas Eve 2016 crash after Ritchies Transport Holdings Ltd (Ritchies Coachlines) pleaded guilty to one charge under the Health and Safety at Work Act in the Waitākere District Court this week.
A private investigators’ report, obtained by the Herald, also shows there “had been no servicing of the brakes on the bus for a significant period of time”.
The company’s acknowledgement of guilt over the crash on State Highway 2, south of Gisborne, comes after the driver of the bus was already held criminally liable 18 months ago.
The Nissan bus was carrying 53 people from Tonga’s Mailefihi Siu’ilikutapu College brass band when it careened down the bank at about 10.30pm on December 24, 2016.
Eleven-year-old Sione Taumalolo, and Talita Moimoi, 33, were killed. The band’s head tutor Leotisia Malakai, 55, died a week later of head and internal injuries.
Siokatame Tupou, the band’s conductor, was seriously injured and Tevita Lokotui, a prefect at the college, also lost his left leg at the knee.
The band was in New Zealand as part of a fundraising trip, and was travelling to perform at Gisborne’s Wesleyan Methodist Church on Christmas Day.
After a WorkSafe investigation, a single charge was laid against Ritchies on December 21, 2017, just days before the one-year anniversary of the crash.
The allegation, under section 36(2) of the Health and Safety at Work Act, related to work carried out at the Ritchies West Auckland depot in Swanson between April 4, 2016, and December 25, 2016.
The section states that a person conducting a business or undertaking must ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that the health and safety of other persons is not put at risk from work carried out as part of the conduct of the business or undertaking.
After what has been a lengthy court process, the company is now due to be sentenced over its breach in September.
Ritchies Transport director Andrew Ritchie said he could not discuss the case before sentencing, while a WorkSafe spokeswoman also declined to comment.
However, a private investigation firm – hired by the lawyer for the bus driver – compiled a report into the crash and the events leading up to it.
The Investigation Consultants Ltd report, which can now be published, included about a year’s worth of servicing records for the bus.
Of particular interest was the servicing of the bus on the November 11 and November 12, 2016, a little more than a month before the crash.
It stated there had been an inspection and passing of the brakes.
However, the brakes were later examined after the crash and “clearly showed there had been no servicing of the brakes on the bus for a significant period of time”, the private investigators’ report said.
“This of course raises the issue that the bus company’s servicing of the bus is in question with the obvious inference that they have been negligent in the servicing of the bus, which in turn led to the brake failure and ultimately the accident.
“Certainly the condition of the braking system on the bus following the accident raises significant concerns about the liability of the bus company and any negligence on their behalf.”
The bus driver, Talakai Aholelei, was already sentenced to five and a half months’ home detention in January 2018 after being charged with three counts of careless driving causing death and 27 charges of careless driving causing injury.
He was also disqualified from driving from two years, and ordered to pay $36,000 in emotional harm reparations.
According to the private investigators’ report, Aholelei had been told before he left for Gisborne that “the brakes were a bit touchy” on the bus.
After missing the Rotorua turnoff he decided to drive on to Hawke’s Bay before heading north towards Wairoa.
While driving north, Aholelei was also stopped by police and questioned about driving too slowly after two people had complained, according to his statement to the private investigators.
Later, about 20 minutes south of Wairoa as the bus was travelling downhill, several passengers reported smelling rubber.
Aholelei, who had been driving buses since the 1980s, told the private investigators he also smelt burning rubber.
“It was not an overpowering smell but it was noticeable,” he said. “I thought I may have had a flat tyre, however was driving normally so it was not a flat tyre. I was not sure at that stage if the passengers on the bus were aware of the smell.
“Because the bus was driving alright and the brakes were working alright I did not think to stop. I had no reason to stop immediately and I knew that we were not far out from Wairoa.”
After stopping in Wairoa at a service station, Aholelei told the students and teachers that the brakes had simply overheated.
Aholelei later told the private investigators he didn’t report the burning smell to Ritchies at the time because “it was Christmas Eve”.
“The depot closed early that day at 4pm. There would have been no one there,” he said.
However, as the bus drove down the Wharerata Hills towards Gisborne, Aholelei soon realised he had no braking ability at all.
“The pedal went straight to the floor,” Aholelei told the private investigators. “It was at that stage that I realised there was no brakes. By that stage there was nothing I could do.”
The now 67-year-old desperately tried to slow the bus, but because it was an automatic he couldn’t use the gears to reduce speed.
After being able to negotiate some bends, Aholelei lost control of the bus as it slid on to the railing on the side of the road before rolling over it and down a steep gully.
Ten people, including Aholelei, were thrown through the glass windows onto the road.
“You made that fatal decision to continue to drive on a road that was unknown to you with no real understanding of the true nature of the problem with the brakes,” Judge June Jelas told Aholelei at his sentencing.
“You, as a professional bus driver, decided to continue to drive with the 53 passengers on board in a bus that later proved to be mechanically faulty.”
Aholelei told private investigators he would “rely on the mechanics at Ritchies to ensure the bus was mechanically safe and sound”.
“There is a warning light on the dashboard to highlight if there is a problem with the brakes,” he said.
“However, that warning light never went on at all throughout the entire trip.”
The private investigators said: “In our opinion an almost ‘perfect storm’ led to the accident occurring.”
Aholelei, who holds the speaking title of Masila which was bestowed on him by the King of Tonga, said he wore a lau’ifi leaf at his sentencing – a symbol of brokenness.
“If you had the power, you would turn back the clock,” Judge Jelas told him.
– Additional reporting Chelsea Boyle