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Told too late . . . Widow misses husband’s inquest

Where the missing trampers were found. GRAPHIC/NZME

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The widow of one of two trampers who died in the Tararua Ranges in 2016 found out too late to attend Tuesday’s coroner’s inquest into his death.

A coroner’s inquest for Mykhailo (Michael) Stepura, 39, and Pavel (Paul) Pazniak, 32, was held in Masterton, with evidence highlighting their lack of preparation and equipment.

Natalia Stepura wanted to thank everyone involved in the search for her husband but did not find out about the hearing until Tuesday morning — too late for her to attend.

“I would really have loved to be there to say a big thank you to the rescue teams, to the policemen, for all their work,” she said.

“But I didn’t get this option… definitely, I would have been there.”

Mrs Stepura said she received a phone call on Tuesday morning from a person saying they were looking forward to seeing her at the hearing.

“I said, ‘Okay, but I’m in Lower Hutt and I didn’t get any information about today’ — I would be really happy to be there.”

A Coronial Services spokesperson said normal practice was for a pre-inquest conference to be held with families at which a hearing date would be discussed, and circumstances in this case would be investigated.

Mrs Stepura moved to Lower Hutt from the Ukraine five years ago with her husband and two children.

Mr Pazniak, who lived in Auckland, was originally from Belarus and also left behind a wife and two children.

The hearing was postponed from January 24 this year “for some reason”, Mrs Stepura said.

The next day, she received an email from the coroner’s office asking if she wanted to allow the court to be opened to the public – she insisted it was, so lessons could be learned from the tragedy.

“They organised everything and said they would let me know about a date – I didn’t get it.”

The two trampers died within 900m of Alpha Hut in the Tararuas in November 2016, and were not dressed for the conditions, or carrying equipment to find their way or call for help.

The pair had set out for an overnight tramp starting at the Waiohine Gorge campsite on Saturday, November 19, 2016.

They were reported missing the following day and their bodies found the next day.

Sergeant Peter Rix of Masterton Police told the inquest on Tuesday he was flown to the area above Alpha Hut on November 21 after a tramper reported finding a body, later confirmed to be Mr Stepura.

After locating the body, Sergeant Rix re-boarded the helicopter to search for the second missing tramper.

He noticed “something out of place” about 200m down the slope from Mr Stepura’s body and, with the helicopter hovering overhead, confirmed it as Mr Pazniak’s body.

Sergeant Rix said it appeared Mr Pazniak had descended directly downhill from where Mr Stepura’s body was found until he could go no further.

He did not consider either man was wearing appropriate clothing to protect them from the elements.

While the men had cellphones, their equipment did not include maps, a compass, GPS, or any form of torch.

Sergeant Rix said it was common for people tramping in the region to rely on cellphones but while coverage could be good, these were not robust and needed to be kept dry.

“Another potential problem is that the retention of motor skills is required to operate these devices and those skills are often quickly lost in extreme conditions.”

Mrs Stepura said she understood that it was “possible” mistakes made by her husband and his friend led to their deaths but appreciated the efforts from emergency services.

“They worked hard doing important work,” she said.

Coroner Tim Scott reserved his findings.

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