Jerome Box's widow: Will anything change after his helicopter crash?by Donna Chisholm
It took three years for transport investigators to release their report into a helicopter crash near Wanaka that killed Auckland businessman Jerome Box. Donna Chisholm wrote about the crash and the length of time it was taking for it to be investigated for North & South in September. She spoke with Jerome Box's widow Adelle after the report's release this week.
Adelle Box spoke after the release of the Transport Accident Investigation commission’s long-delayed report into the 2014 crash at Mt Alta which killed her husband Jerome, and injured six others.
The report found that The Helicopter Line Airbus AS350 chopper was about 30kg overloaded on the flight, its centre of gravity was just forward of what was allowed, and was operating at or close to the performance limit for hovering before it struck the mountain and rolled some 300m, ejecting the pilot and four of the passengers on the way.
TAIC criticised a culture among helicopter pilots which meant they operated aircraft beyond published limits.
Box says she was surprised TAIC was so honest about the industry, and its comments were long overdue. But in a meeting with TAIC ahead of the report’s release, she says she asked them what was done to ensure all the recommendations in its reports were actually taken up by the industry.
“I have seen lots of safety reports. How do you turn these into outcomes that are making the industry safer? What we need is a review of the TAIC legislation, CAA legislation and ACC legislation, aspects of which are archaic and need to be revamped.” One example was that TAIC needed to wait until after a CAA court prosecution of The Helicopter Line so it didn’t prejudice the case. “I have lots of questions about why it took so long to get here.”
The Helicopter Line last month admitted two health and safety charges related to the crash and will be sentenced in March.
Before then, Box and the crash survivors will undergo a restorative justice process with The Helicopter Line, which she said would be an enormously challenging and confronting exercise.
“But I am not one to shy away from a difficult task if it potentially means making things better for others in the long term.”
What caused the helicopter crash that killed Jerome Box?
Original North & South story from September 2017.
Where are you? your friend asks. Stay there, she says, I’ll come to you.
By now, you know this is bad, but not how bad. You keep asking questions, but you don’t believe the answers.
A heli-skiing chopper has crashed on a bluebird day near Wanaka. Seven men are on board, including your friend’s husband and yours. Six survive. Your husband is the only one who’s not coming home.
You don’t remember much after that moment, apart from the animal wail of your 12-year-old daughter breaking down beside you and the bewildered look of disbelief on the face of your 10-year-old son.
Adelle Box still struggles to believe that she is this woman. It’s been three years since her husband Jerome, 52, was killed, but with the official investigation into the accident about to enter its fourth year, her faith in the system that is meant to tell her why he died, and what might be done to save other lives, has gone.
Her life, and that of her children, will never be the same. “When Jerome died, we found ourselves at ground zero. The future has had to be rewritten."
The pilot’s already told them this is the first time he has flown this particular machine, which is new to the service after a conversion in the United States from a medi-vac chopper.
Documents show the helicopter received its airworthiness certificate from the Civil Aviation Authority just the day before, so this trip is probably its first commercial outing in New Zealand.
The short hop to Mt Alta, about 20km north-west of Wanaka, is the group’s third flight of the day; they’ve already done one run in perfect conditions near Treble Cone and spirits on board are high.
“We seem to be coming in fast,” says Bensley, development manager of Auckland’s Britomart Precinct. “I’m going, ‘Ahhh, we’ve got a problem, a real problem now.’ There was just silence. I can’t remember any talking at all. I can remember thinking, ‘It’s all over.’
“We collect a ridge with the rotor, and the nose of the chopper head-plants and the back flips over, does a full somersault and flips out. The whole bottom of the body just rips off, so the only thing left is the egg with the seats.”
The rotor blades, too, are wrenched off, leaving a gaping hole in the chopper’s canopy as the machine begins a 300m end-over-end roll down the mountainside.
G-forces catapult out four of those on board. The first is property company CFO Craig Peirce, who lands on his backside in the snow, breaking his back in three places. Next comes Greg McLeod, a flooring company director, who is fired out about 10m down the slope from Peirce, and is bleeding heavily from a head wound. Heli-ski guide Mark Sedon comes out next. He has spinal fractures and is hunched on his hands and knees, but sends out a mayday call on the radio he’s carrying.
Pilot Matthews, ejected another 10m down, is also bleeding from a head injury.
“We are rolling at a real pace,” says Bensley. His iPhone is flung from his grasp. The phone, and the valuable footage it contains, is never recovered despite intensive searches.
“It’s quite black and I think it’s all done. I’m conscious the whole way down. I see the sky, because there’s nothing above me, it’s all open now. I can’t believe I’m still alive. The G-forces are so full-on your body is absolutely in contortion. I focused on another sport I do: surfing. When you get slammed by a big wave, you try to go deep. If you relax, you’ll survive it. If you panic, you’ll die. So that’s what I did. I said to myself, just relax. So I relaxed all the way down the mountain for 1000 feet. And every time it turns over, my head goes in the snow.
“Then, at the end of the rolling, I’m going, ‘How does this end? Are we stopping or are we falling off a cliff here?’ Then we did start to slow down and finally stop and I thought, ‘Please don’t stop with my head in the snow.’ But it didn’t. It came up, rocked, and came back on the side.”
By the time the chopper comes to rest, only two men are left belted in their seats – both in the middle of the chopper: tech company CEO David Reid, who was in the centre-front seat next to the pilot; and Bensley, to the left of where Box had been seated directly behind the pilot. Box is nowhere to be seen.
Bensley unclips his seatbelt and falls into the snow. “The place just stinks of aviation fuel. I thought, ‘This isn’t over – it’s going to explode.’ All I know is from the movies. I’m thinking, ‘It’s going to blow and I’m not out of this yet.’ I race around and unclip Dave. He’s sort of conscious. I grab him and I’m mothered, but adrenalin is racing through my body. I just pull him as fast as I can about 30 or 40 metres away. Then I collapse because I’m in so much agony.”
Bensley has neck and back injuries and Reid has broken ribs and a dislocated shoulter.
Lying on his back in the snow, Bensley thinks they’ve all escaped the wreck, and are far enough away to be safe should it explode. The men flung out at the top and those below shout to each other and there’s a head count. Box is missing.
“I see a little thing of orange sticking out next to the wreck,” says Bensley. Box is trapped by the leg. “Jerome had his orange jacket on. I get up and just high-tail it back to the chopper to pull him out. I get to him and I don’t try to pull him out initially. I just turn him over and unclip his jacket to try to do CPR.”
Trained in resuscitation, Bensley realises from almost the first breath that his mate is gone. “There’s no life in him. When I blow into his mouth… it isn’t a sound you normally hear when you do that. But I’m still not believing it. I still think he’ll come back. I’m pulling with all my might to get him out and trying to push the chopper off his leg.”
Peirce by this time has made it to the site. Despite the decompression injuries to his back, which aren’t diagnosed for another three days, he’s sledded down the mountain on an avalanche shovel, bringing with him the first-aid kit, which had somehow landed next to him in the snow.
Matthews, too, has reached the site. He hits the kill switch on the helicopter’s electrics, making the fuselage safer.
Bensley refuses to give up on Box. “By the time it takes Craig to get down, I’m still there. They end up pulling me off him. I’m not letting anyone else near him. They say, ‘Dave, you need to get out of here. We all need to get out of here."
But instead of pacing the floors in those sleepless hours, Box went to work, poring over spreadsheets and specifications, questioning investigators and doing her own sleuthing. “I have a slightly technical mind – I helped my dad rebuild my first car motor. I can’t help myself.”
Slowly, over the course of months, she learned about helicopters, and what makes them fall out of the sky. She went to inspect the wreck in a Wellington warehouse, asked why the seatbelts came adrift and why the engine hadn’t been examined. She pored over flight manuals and flight data, fuel loads and wind direction. She questioned authorities about all manner of things. She wondered why tourism operators didn’t spell out to heli-skiers that personal insurance may not cover them if the worst should happen. (Jerome did not have life insurance.)
She also learned a lot about something called “weight and balance” – a phrase she’d once known nothing about, but which everyone she spoke to seemed to mention – and the centre of gravity.
Early in 2015, she discovered that the weights declared on the form the men filled out before they climbed aboard the Squirrel that day were simply estimates – an industry-accepted standard at the time. They wrote down how much they thought they weighed, but that excluded extras such as boots, helmets, camera gear – Jerome Box’s alone weighed 4kg – and skis.
As part of her research, Adelle asked her husband’s friends to weigh themselves, and their gear, and she supplied those figures to the Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) and Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). “Why had no one else done that? I am a process person. I thought part of this process should be collecting their weights, surely?”
On November 27, 2015, six days after another AS350 crashed on Fox Glacier, killing its pilot and six tourists, the CAA issued an airworthiness directive, saying that as a result of the Mt Alta investigation, it was requiring operators of the Squirrel to use “precise weight and balance calculations” to ensure loads didn’t exceed the manufacturers’ limits. This meant every passenger now had to be individually weighed.
The Squirrel was initially made with six seats – one for the pilot on the right front, a front left-hand side passenger seat and four seats in the rear. But in subsequent post-manufacture modifications, the single front passenger seat was replaced with a dual seat. According to one manufacturer’s installation guideline, the passenger weight limit for the new (dual front seat) configuration was 154kg, although crash investigator Ian McClelland told Adelle Box “extensive underfloor strengthening” removed that limit.
David Reid, who was in the dual front seat alongside guide Mark Sedon, weighed 85kg without clothing or gear. With his helmet, clothes, boots and skis, he weighed more than 100kg. Sedon, the friends say, looked a similar size to Reid.
The timing of the CAA’s directive on weights and loading angers Adelle Box. If it had come out a week before the second crash, instead of a week later, would it have saved lives? Why did it take more than 15 months after the Mt Alta crash? Why wasn’t someone else putting two and two together, apart from her?
“I’ve been sorely tempted to contact the Fox Glacier families and tell them they don’t need to be sitting in the situation they’re in,” she says.
In January 2015, the CAA laid three health and safety charges against The Helicopter Line, alleging that, as an employer, it failed to take all practicable steps to ensure no action or inactions of its employee harmed any other person; failed to ensure its employees didn’t harm others; and failed to train Matthews in high-altitude operations. Matthews has not flown since the crash, but is still employed by the company in a non-flying role. He has not been charged in relation to the crash.
In June 2016, the CAA also laid health and safety charges against the owner and quality assurance manager of Fox Glacier flight operators Alpine Adventures, having suspended the company’s air operating certificate in May.
The year 2015 was a very bad one for TAIC. In October, an independent report highlighted shortcomings with its investigation into a September 2010 crash of a converted topdressing plane, again in Fox Glacier, which killed eight parachutists and the pilot. TAIC originally found weight and balance issues caused the crash but subsequently changed its findings, saying it was unlikely either was the primary cause. The independent report said mechanical failure couldn’t be ruled out, because of TAIC’s decision to allow key parts of the wreckage to be buried days after the chopper went down.
TAIC had released the report of its investigation in May 2012 – just 18 months after the crash. Stung by the later criticisms, the commission could well have decided to proceed more cautiously – and slowly – in future.
North & South has learned a draft report of the Mt Alta investigation has been released to The Helicopter Line for comment. But no one has told Adelle Box that. “The shutters have gone up,” she says.
In July, TAIC released to North & South a list of air incident investigations that remain outstanding. The Mt Alta crash is the oldest unresolved event. The report for a 2013 Helicopter Line crash, a non-fatal landing collision at Tyndall Glacier in Mt Aspiring National Park, was released on July 27. TAIC said it couldn’t exclude the possibility that the pilot of the second chopper to land misjudged his approach, causing the accident. It excluded technical, helicopter performance and other environmental factors.
If there is any comfort for Adelle and their children, Briana and Xavier, it’s the joy on his face that day.
Box lived for trips like this one, indulging his sporting passion with his closest mates. An adventurer who thrived on the adrenalin rush, he was the instigator of the heli-skiing day – a highlight of the friends’ annual trip to Queenstown. That year, 10 of them, mostly from the congregation at St Paul’s Anglican Church in Auckland, made the trip. Five paid around $1000 each for the heli-skiing; the others spent the day skiing at Treble Cone.
IT and telecommunications executive Ben Green was the organiser for the long weekend. They had decided who’d go on the chopper over nachos and a beer by the outside fire at the Cardrona pub the day before. “I was keen,” says Green, “but there were only seats for five. I’d have gone if there were six.”
He remembers looking up at the helicopters flying overhead as the land-bound five took a lunch break at Treble Cone. “It was an absolutely stunning day. I was a bit crestfallen at that point, because I knew when we got back to our apartment that night, I’d hear nothing but how amazing the day was and how I’d missed out. But the helicopters I thought were carrying people having a wonderful heli-ski day were actually going in to make the recovery at Mt Alta.”
They were still at lunch when Reid phoned from the Wanaka Medical Centre, where the survivors were being treated, and told one of the friends, Logan Batts, that Box had been killed.
“We got in the car and drove straight to the emergency centre,” says Green. “It was just an awful drive. On the way, one of the wives who’d heard about the crash called Logan to ask how her husband was. She was frantic, but he didn’t know. None of us did. We said a prayer, for sure.”
The scenes at the medical centre were “total carnage”. Bensley and McLeod, the most seriously hurt, were airlifted to Dunedin Hospital. Reid was “black and blue, visibly bashed”. Peirce – who was actually the most seriously hurt but his back injuries were not yet diagnosed – was walking gingerly, but seemed otherwise okay.
There was no shortage of offers of help that day. A Helicopter Line representative helped ferry the survivors back to Queenstown, and the company arranged travel and accommodation for the wives of the men hospitalised.
Green says it was a surreal Saturday night for the seven men who returned to the apartment. They watched the All Blacks’ test – a draw with Australia in Sydney – because they didn’t know what else to do. Jerome’s room, the one with the great view over Lake Wanaka, was just off the lounge. His gear was still there, but they knew he wouldn’t be coming back to get it.
To see the photograph of what was left of the Squirrel wreckage on Mt Alta is to know a miracle of sorts spared the lives of six of the men on board. For Adelle Box, it makes the loss of her husband that much harder to bear.
“When someone goes on holiday and they never come back but everyone else does, it plays with your mind. Every day for about six months, I’d have to wake up and remind myself that he wasn’t coming back. Because he was supposed to. It’s not like I was in a car crash with him and lived through it. It’s not like there was a cancer diagnosis or some other illness that we could journey on, together. It was just boom, gone.”
The survivors felt it, too. “There was such a feeling that this was a miracle on one level and a total tragedy on another,” says David Reid’s wife, Bridget O’Malley, the woman who had to break the news to her friend that Jerome had died. “The thing that you’re grateful for is the thing someone else is grieving.”
The survivors turned up as a group and spent hours with Adelle, who wanted to hear every detail; wanted to understand. In the first days, her Grey Lynn home was full of people looking after the family, cooking food she couldn’t eat, offering solace for a loss she still couldn’t comprehend.
After two or three weeks, she took some of the baking to the builders Jerome employed in his high-end construction company – he’d treated them like family. They were in expansion mode in the 25-year-old business before the crash, Adelle says, but she immediately had to shut down work worth $3 million, and later put the company into “hibernation”. “I didn’t have the strength to carry on.”
Over time, too, the support networks withered as friends returned to their own lives. “A lot of people just don’t understand, can’t deal with it. Some of my very best friends said they just didn’t know what to say.”
Then there is the miserable reality of solo motherhood in your 40s. “You no longer have your sounding board in life, that adult to check in with. I realised whenever the children and I went away somewhere, who would know if we had a crash on the way? Who’s going to check in and make sure we’re okay, who’s expecting us to come back?”
Last year, she fell three metres off a ladder in the hall and broke her arm, and her foot in 20 places. She was in hospital for a fortnight and the children had to be “farmed out” to friends, because she doesn’t have close family in New Zealand. “One of the hardest things is being asked by the ambulance staff who they should contact. Whenever you fill out a form for the kids, it’s ‘Who is their father? Do the mother and father live at the same address?’ It just gets you every time in so many little ways.”
Adelle works part-time for a hotel design and procurement company, and is offering two rooms in her home for rent with Airbnb. Money is tight now. “We used to always be out doing something – mountain biking, skiing, climbing… something adventurous. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but there are just things you can’t have and you can’t do any more.”
Two weeks before Christmas last year, she says, The Helicopter Line’s counsel approached CAA and expressed interest in “resolution discussions”, which required her to lay out the financial effect of the crash and the loss of Jerome on her life.
“Christmas is one of the hardest times of the year to navigate with the kids. I thought, ‘You’re asking me to stand here in my underwear telling you what I’m worth, what my emotional state is, and how it’s affected me?’ That’s how it felt. It felt like I was stripped bare. It just crushed me.”
Ultimately the discussions did not proceed. “My lawyer helped me draft something and came to a figure of what it had meant to us, which was apparently laughed at.”
In May, Adelle, along with Jerome’s close friends Warren Lawrence and Scott Feasey, flew to Wellington to take their concerns to TAIC, meeting formally with CEO Lois Hutchinson, chief accident inspector Captain Tim Burfoot and five other commissioners. “I want to know where the report is at,” Adelle told them. “It’s unacceptable to not know what’s going on. I feel like you’re stringing me along.”
In the meeting, she questioned why at that time, the only outstanding accident report yet to be finalised by TAIC from 2013 also involved a Helicopter Line chopper. “Why don’t The Helicopter Line reports seem to get done? Do they use dilatory tactics?”
The commissioners did not directly reply. “Our job is to get the right answer,” chief commissioner Jane Meares told them, “and if there is any reason why this report is taking so long, it is because we are endeavouring to find the right answer.”
She said new lines of inquiry had opened up and were being reviewed, but the commission was conscious of the timing of the report’s release, with the health and safety prosecution of The Helicopter Line due to begin in November. “We must be mindful of the prejudice that might result were we to release a report at an inappropriate moment.”
Feasey told them he was disgusted with TAIC’s performance. “I’m in the construction industry and I get better responses when there are accidents in construction. We run a better show. Our reports come out quicker. Our families are not tormented or taken through the same grief.
“Please,” he told them, “give Adelle responses. Please support her.”
The Helicopter Line director Mark Quickfall told North & South that perceptions the company was trying to stall the investigation were wrong. “We are working hard, being open and upfront. This is a tragic accident and as much as anyone we want to know what caused it. We have co-operated fully with TAIC on everything. I certainly understand Adelle’s frustrations – they are probably equal to our own. [The time being taken]... it’s disappointing for everybody. We have full sympathy for Adelle Box and the passengers who were on the flight.”
However, he says it’s in the company’s and the wider industry’s interests to establish the cause “of this accident and tragedy”.
“We have conducted heli-skiing in the Southern Alps for over 35 years, frequently landing at the Mt Alta site. We are as keen as any party to understand what TAIC believe occurred. Based on our own investigation, THL has a view on causation and taken steps to address what we believe was a key contributing factor. Because the matter is before the court, I’m unable to discuss this aspect further.”
He says he cannot comment on many of the other issues raised because of the pending case, which also restricted the company’s ability to deal with the family. “The laying of charges against an organisation means, based on legal advice, very little interaction with victims is possible. This seems to be a regrettable consequence of an adversarial system.”
The court case was due to be heard in March this year but was adjourned at the eleventh hour when a key witness, a contractor at The Helicopter Line, went overseas. Quickfall says The Helicopter Line was not to blame for the witness’s failure to appear. “The CAA failed to tell him that he was required as a witness. It did not subpoena him or advise him when the hearing date was, and it transpired that he was in Alaska at the time of the hearing.” The CAA declined to comment because the case is before court.
Helicopter Line choppers have been involved in four snow-landing incidents since 2013. After the most recent, in September 2016, then-CEO Jeff Staniland said procedures would be reviewed.
Quickfall said the company carried out a “total review of all our operating procedures. You always need to look at yourself. We work hard day in and day out to avoid any accidents or incidents and we reviewed the whole business, from governance, to hardware we operate, our training, right the way through. Did we discover anything material to this case? No, nothing material, but we have made changes to our operations – they were more tweaks than anything.”
TAIC CEO Hutchinson told North & South the Mt Alta crash “is an important case. It’s important for the helicopter fleet for New Zealand and the world. Everything we do and say affects not only people in our locality, but has fleet-wide implications, so there is a very strong threshold for ensuring those affected globally are heard and we get it right.”
She says a “multitude of parties” are involved, and an investigation of three years or more isn’t that unusual.
“I know Adelle is frustrated by the length of time, but the commission’s task is to dive deep into the events it looks at. It has to follow procedural rules and be very sure natural justice requirements are met.”
TAIC is legally bound not to speak about active cases, she says, “so it gets very difficult for us to explain”.
“It’s like, fair point, why does it take so long, but there is no deep mystery in it. The commission is trying to do its job and make sure it’s kicked every stone, understands what’s going on, and at the same time meets its statutory obligations for natural justice.”
TAIC aims to have straightforward cases completed within two or two-and-a-half years and “by and large we are achieving that”.
She says as many as 30-35 TAIC investigations in all three transport modes are open at any one time and can be complicated when interested parties are overseas. In the Mt Alta case, the helicopter is French-manufactured, and the makers are automatically parties to the inquiry. She says she’s not aware of delaying tactics by The Helicopter Line or others.
Internationally, independent investigators aim to complete inquiries within a year, where possible. “But thereafter, if that’s not possible, at least keep those affected informed, and get at the truth. The focus is on finding the answers.”
Although Adelle Box supplied the weights of those on board to TAIC in March 2015, more than six months after the crash and before TAIC sought the information, Hutchinson says that didn’t mean they would never have been taken. However, she accepted it was a “fair point” that the sooner they were taken after the accident, the better.
TAIC told Adelle Box early this year that its report should be finalised by November. In May, she was told it “may not even be this year”. It’s becoming a bit of a pattern. In 2015, the commission said it should be ready by early 2016 – but in 2016, the date shifted to early 2017. The commission no longer gives estimated release dates. “They made a rod for our back,” says Hutchinson.
Adelle Box, meanwhile, worries at what she sees as a lack of transparency, and the risk that lives may be lost because reports aren’t completed more promptly.
“I’ve been very on to it for a long time. I was so full of hope that the system would uncover what had happened,” she says. “But it does get to the point where it breaks you. And that’s where I am. I just feel broken by it.”
Current TAIC air inquiries include:
This was published in the September 2017 issue of North & South.
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