Manslaughter trial underway following dragon boat tragedy

Teacher who took children on dragon boat in freezing conditions died after boat capsized. His school and head teacher now on trial for involuntary manslaughter

Students broke down and walked out of court during the involuntary manslaughter trial of a school head teacher following the 2011 Præstø Fjord dragon boat disaster.

Two teachers and 13 students, aged 16-18, from Lundby Efterskole were in the flat-bottomed dragon boat that capsized in Præstø Fjord on 11 February 2011, spilling them all into the two-degree water.

One of the teachers, 44-year-old Michael Jørgensen, died and seven of the students were placed in artificial comas after suffering heart attacks from spending hours in the freezing water. Many of the students suffered brain damage after their body temperatures dropped as low as 15 degrees.

A September 2011 report by Havarikommissionen, the accident investigation board, found the school had underestimated the risk of boating in February.

“[There was] a considerable risk of an accident by going out the dragon boat on Præstø Fjord given the conditions,” the report stated.

Head teacher Truels Truelsen was away in Austria at the time of the tragedy but is the only individual facing involuntary manslaughter charges.

He and the school are also being charged with violating maritime safety laws for not ensuring the students were wearing life jackets that could keep their heads above the water in the event they lost consciousness. Several of the children were found floating upright in the sea with their heads below water before they were lifted to safety by a helicopter.

The trial has so far seen Truelsen, assistant head teacher Lars Schou Jensen and four students give their testimony about the events leading up to and following the capsizing of the dragon boat.

Prosecutor Michael Boolsen has focused on determining whether the students received sufficient safety training and whether Jørgensen was adequately experienced to take the children out on the boat.

Truelsen stated he found it surprising the students had been taken out so early in the year. But he added that he thought Jørgensen was sufficiently qualified to be trusted in his judgement.

Several days before the accident, Jørgensen took different students out on another dragon boating trip without incident.

But on the day of the accident, the weather conditions deteriorated as they paddled further into the fjord. Jørgensen then decided to turn back, and it was during this manoeuvre that the boat capsized.

According to Karoline Klit, one of the students who testified on Tuesday, Jørgensen ordered the children to swim the several hundred meters to land.

“I asked Michael whether we should try to flip the boat but he said he couldn’t,” Klit told the court. “Then he told us that if we didn’t swim for shore we would die.”

Students who made it to land managed to walk two kilometres to a petrol station to call for help.

While Jensen also stated that Jørgensen was a competent and hard-working teacher, one of the students testified that he was highly demanding.

The students were training for a dragon boat race and, according to student Nicklas Bøhm, Jørgensen was not pleased with their performance.

“He was a bit angry and shouted at us because he didn’t think that we were rowing hard enough,” Bøhm said, adding that he respected his teacher. “But he had a tendency to be tough and could push people’s boundaries.”

Bøhm supported the testimony of student Thyra Hvass, who told the court that they were not given any safety training before getting in the boat.

While Bøhm was able to make it to shore and suffered few permanent difficulties after the spell in the freezing water, student Casper Weigel was less fortunate.

Weigel is unable to remember anything about the accident or the weeks before and after. While he has returned to school, he has had to endure months of physical therapy.

He told the court that he was a bad swimmer but despite knowing this, the school made him participate in the dragon boat training.

Tuesday’s testimony was interrupted several times as students became distraught over having to relive the tragedy.

All but three of the students are expected to testify during the trial. The remaining three are reportedly too injured from the accident to testify.

Præstø accident timeline:

·         On Friday, 11 February 2011, a boat carrying 13 students and two teachers from Lundby School capsizes in Præstø Fjord about 1.7 kilometres from Præstø harbour.  

·         One of the students alerts the authorities at 12.47.

·         Seven students and a 33-year-old female teacher manage to swim to shore on their own.

·         At 15:20, 14 out of the 15 people involved are out of the water and taken to hospital. A 44-year-old male teacher, Michael Jørgensen, is later found dead.

·         Seven of the students are placed in artificial comas and some of them suffer brain damage to varying degrees.

·         After the accident, the school is heavily criticised for not following safety regulations.

·         The administration of Lundby School dismisses the criticism, pointing to an investigation the law firm Bech-Bruun carried out on its behalf.

·         In September 2011, accident investigators find that Lundby School was not properly aware of the risks involved with dragon boats.

·         On 1 October 2012, a year after investigators issue their report, the police decide to charge head teacher Truels Truelsen with involuntary manslaughter. The school itself faces a fine.





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