Father’s distress as daughter ripped from his arms in bus crash

The father of Hannah Francis has described his panic on an ill-fated bus moments before the daughter he tried protecting was ripped from his arms.

And the driver of the bus, himself a father, expressed his profound sadness as an inquest into 11-year-old Hannah’s death started on Tuesday.

Hannah was killed in a Mt Ruapehu bus crash in July 2018 after the bus rolled near Tūroa skifield.

Her father Matt, an engineer from Auckland’s Green Bay, told the inquest it was damp and foggy at the skifield.

Matt and Hannah took a bus on Ohakune Mountain Rd, an access road between the skifield and Ohakune.

“Hannah asked me if we could sit at the back of the bus and I said sure.”

He said the road was windy before reaching a sharp hairpin bend, where problems with the 1994 Mitsubishi Fuso bus started.

“When he was unable to get the bus into gear, the driver stood on the brakes several times.

“At the same time, we were picking up speed and I could see the driver was trying to slow the bus down by pumping the brake.”

But Matt said the driver realised he couldn’t get the bus into gear.

He said the driver should have kept the engine revving to maintain the air supply to the brakes.

“The bus began to take corners a lot faster than it should have … People started panicking.”

He said the passengers could tell something was terribly wrong and became more and more distressed.

The bus weaved and passengers screamed. One even opened the rear door and jumped out, Matt said.

He put Hannah’s skis under their feet and a snowboard in the aisle.

“I knew we were going much too fast to take the corner safely,” he said.

“I put both my arms around Hannah and pulled her down onto my lap.”

He said the bus went into the other lane and hit a barrier hard on the road’s right side.

“I felt and heard the impact and we were all thrown towards the right.”

The bus then lurched violently to the left, impacting another barrier.

“Hannah was in his arms after the first impact but in the second impact, she was ripped away from her dad.

“I could not hold onto her.”

The bus crashed.

“I shouted for Hannah and got no response,” Matt said. “People were crying and then I heard other voices saying ‘Get out, get out’.”

“I crawled to the side of the road, where I collapsed.”

He remembered helicopters hovering overhead – and later learned his daughter had died.

He sustained injuries including broken ribs and multiple loose teeth.

He was discharged on August 1 that year and was off work for months.

Driver's sorrow

“As a father, this is an indescribably sad moment that will stay with me forever,” the bus driver said on Tuesday.

A suppression order means the driver cannot be named or identified.

“I can never express fully how sorry I am and would do anything to change that day.”

“I am very sorry to the Francis family for their loss.”

He said in his opinion, the Fuso engine brake was not very good compared to other buses.

He also said Ruapehu Alpine Lifts did not train him about how to react if the bus developed problems as it did on the day of the crash.

On board that day were 31 people, he said.

“No one was watching or assessing my driving during these trips,” he said.

Answers wanted

Coroner Brigitte Windley will examine what caused the crash.

The inquest will also examine whether Hannah’s death could have been avoided if the bus had a safety restraint system.

“We can’t begin to know how her passing has changed the lives of her loved ones,” Windley added.

Windley said the inquest would be about establishing the facts of the crash, and figuring out how to avoid future tragedies.

“It is not about findings of liability. But let me be clear – it is about accountability.”

The inquest would not examine whether police should have prosecuted anybody.

Lawyers are representing Worksafe, NZ Transport Agency, Ruapehu Alpine Lifts and VTNZ at the hearing.

The publication of passenger names other than Hannah and her father is prohibited, and the driver’s name cannot be published either.

“There was nothing hazardous about the driving conditions,” Matt said. “The road was neither icy nor wet.”

He told the inquest he believed the driver did not engage the exhaust brake.

He said police later visited him to tell him nobody would be prosecuted. Matt said he couldn’t understand why that decision was made.

“I hope changes will be made that reduce the chances of a crash like this happening again.”

He said driver training should be improved.

He said he would like to see heavy vehicle drivers who transport passengers demonstrate familiarity with the mechanical systems.

He asked for authorities to consider if seat belts should be used on open roads in heavy passenger vehicles.

The inquest continues.

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