The brother of the first competitor to die at the Australian Surf Life Saving Championships has joined calls for a broader inquiry into the deaths of all three teenagers at the event.
The deaths of Robert Gatenby, Saxon Bird and Matthew Barclay occurred in different years at Kurrawa Beach on the Gold Coast.
As well as the grief that has been felt across the surf life saving community, there is a growing view that the deaths were preventable.
In 1996, Robert Gatenby was killed at the national titles; Saxon Bird drowned in 2010. Both were competing in cyclone-affected surf at Kurrawa Beach.
At both titles, competitors complained about being sent into unsafe surf. The coronial inquest into Mr Bird was highly critical of some officials for not listening to competitors’ concerns, but no-one was held responsible for the death.
There was no coronial inquest into Robert Gatenby’s death.
Speaking for the first time since the death of his brother, Michael Gatenby says there is a connection between all three deaths.
“There seems to have been advice that it was inappropriate, or at least it was challenging circumstances, for young boys to go out into the surf. So there’s that nexus between them,” he said.
“There seems to have been a reluctance by officials to move or postpone or cancel the events when told by others that there were these problems.”
Mr Bird’s parents have called for a Royal Commission and they have now been joined by former national title holder Jane Humphreys, who believes that surf life saving officials are not taking the deaths seriously enough.
“Yes, they looked like they’ve moved it from Kurrawa Beach but they’re not really saying why. They’re just saying ‘Oh to make everyone happy’ or ‘You know, that’s not the reason’,” she said.
“The reason is that three people have died and there needs to be inquiry into how to make it safer so that if we do go to a beach and the same conditions are experienced that they do call it off.”
In March Matthew Barclay, 14, drowned. His death is the subject of a police investigation and the coroner will determine whether an inquest is necessary.
The President of Surf Life Saving Queensland, Ralph Devlin, has rejected calls for a Royal Commission, saying police are still investigating the death of Matthew Barclay.
Mr Devlin rejects the idea that the three deaths are indicative of a pattern.
“What? Three deaths in 100 years?” he said. “Three deaths since 1996.”
“I can go through the circumstances of each of those deaths and it involves equipment, that’s for sure, but lifesavers use lifesaving equipment every day of the week and they have to be skilled in using it.
“You are asking me questions about competition, but you would have to acknowledge that every year thousands of lives are saved throughout Australia by dedicated volunteers with the required skills.”
– Listen to Wendy Carlisle’s investigation into the three deaths at the Surf Life Saving Titles on Background Briefing, ABC Radio National, Sunday May 6 at 8:00am (AEST).
Topics: accidents—other, surf-life-saving, broadbeach-4218
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