Snow and Avalanche Center Avalanche News

Avalanche report, not inquest, ordered
(School program incident in Rogers Pass - Feb 1, 2003)

From Thursday's Globe and Mail - Aug. 7, 2003

The B.C. coroner's service will not hold a public hearing into the case of seven Calgary teenagers who died in an avalanche while on a school trip. Instead, coroner Jack Latimer will continue collecting information relating to the tragedy and then write a public report.

The decision upset two families, who lobbied for a public inquest because they felt it would result in greater attention to issues of school responsibility and child safety. "The public has a right to know," said Donna Broshko, who lost her son Scott.

However, several families were opposed to an inquest; some felt the process would not lead to a greater understanding of the disaster and others couldn't bear days of testimony. "It focuses you back again to that day and that's hard," said Carol Neale, whose son Ben Albert died. "To sit through a week, two weeks, three weeks of testimony in a public forum, which could be reported on daily . . . that would just be really difficult."

Seven Grade 10 students from Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School, a private institution in Okotoks, Alta., were killed in a powerful avalanche that swept through Rogers Pass near Revelstoke, B.C., on Feb. 1. Seven other students and three adults survived. The backcountry ski trip was part of the school's curriculum. The victims, who were all 15, were: Mr. Broshko, Mr. Albert, Daniel Arato, Alex Pattillo, Michael Shaw, Marissa Staddon and Jeff Trickett.

Families — both of the dead and of the survivors — were informed of the chief coroner's decision to continue with the inquiry process at a meeting in Calgary last week. Ms. Neale said there were "hurt feelings" because many parents were under the impression the gathering had been called to seek their views.

Norm Leibel, B.C.'s deputy chief coroner, said parents' input was not a factor in the service's decision. He said his office elected to call the Calgary gathering to inform parents in person of the office's finding, saying the meeting was "respectful, meaningful and the right way to do business."

"Where I come from is that the decision on public inquest or inquiry is not something that's dependent on public pressure or no public pressure," he said. Mr. Leibel said officials decided their mandate — which is to determine facts and make recommendations, not find blame — is best served by the inquiry process rather than a public inquest. "We made that decision based on sound information . . . and in our minds we're most satisfied that the mandate of the coroner's service is best met by continuing with the inquiry," he said.

As for those who wanted an inquest, Mr. Leibel said: "Some people have different reasons for wanting to hear publicly the information. My situation is we are a fact-finding not a fault-finding agency. We're able to establish the facts, we're not interested in finding any fault in anybody."

In a position paper drafted in May, Peter Arato argued in favour of an inquest. "It is important that these issues be examined in the public eye, with public scrutiny and a high level of public attention that may promote greater awareness of child safety," wrote Mr. Arato, who could not be contacted yesterday.

In supporting the inquiry process, Ms. Neale yesterday said having an experienced coroner in charge of the case could be more effective than placing it in the hands of five jurors. "I don't think you necessarily get an inferior product with an inquiry. You may indeed, in some respects, in our situation get a better product, a better investigation and a better report," she said.

In B.C., a coroner's inquest is a quasi-judicial proceeding wherein a five-member jury hears testimony from witnesses and experts then makes findings on fact and recommendations. During inquiries, which are more common, a coroner collects information — accounts from witnesses and other involved parties, expert reports and other agencies' reviews — and writes a report that is made public.

Mr. Latimer, a former Mountie who is a part-time coroner based in the service's Kamloops office, recently took charge of the file. Chuck Purse, the original part-time coroner, asked to be relieved of the case because of a heavy workload. Mr. Leibel said the report will likely be finished in five months.

Mr. Latimer will review reports conducted for other agencies, including an independent report commissioned by the school that suggested the school failed in assessing, managing and communicating risk levels associated with its outdoor education program.

He will also consider an independent report conducted for Parks Canada that recommended certified mountain guides for school trips traveling in high-risk areas, clearer explanations of danger in the agency's bulletins and better trailhead signage.

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