Hannah Francis inquest: Police inspector says he would lay charges if he had the chance

A police inspector who decided not to lay charges after a bus crash that killed an 11-year-old says he would do things differently.

Detective Inspector Neil Forlong was the one to tell Hannah Francis’ family no one would be charged for her death when an out-of-control bus crashed two years ago.

Hannah was killed in a Mt Ruapehu bus crash in July 2018 after the bus rolled near Tūroa skifield, as terrified passengers screamed and one leaped from the bus.

The driver, who has name suppression, rejected suggestions he went too fast around a hairpin turn, or wore out the Mitsubishi Fuso’s brakes.

How the Ohakune Mountain Rd bus trip went so wrong that day in July 2018 remains unknown, but Forlong today told an inquest he’d changed his mind on whether he should have laid charges, Newshub reported.

“Knowing then what you now know, would that recommendation be any different?” Matt Francis, Hannah’s father, asked Forlong.

“Yes, it probably would be,” he replied.

The driver had told Forlong an auxiliary switch was inadvertently flicked, he said, leading it to lose control coming down the mountain.

If on, the switch drains a tank that holds air pressure for the brakes. But the bus was found with the switch off and air still in the tank.

“My assessment at that time was that there was a reasonable doubt,” Forlong said.

Expert evidence to the court said that even if those brakes had failed, as the driver said they had, a secondary break system should’ve activated.

But Forlong said told the inquest today was the first time he’d heard that.

At the time, police were advised by a legal team not to prosecute the driver.

But Forlong said it wasn’t a decision he felt completely comfortably with.

“If it’s the wrong decision, I have no problem apologising to the family for that now, personally apologising for my mistake,” he said.

Yesterday the inquest heard some Ruapehu Alpine Lifts buses went from running two trips daily to 10 or more.

The Herald previously discovered the 1994 Fuso bus had failed multiple Certificate of Fitness inspections.

And on Wednesday, the inquest in Auckland heard one Ruapehu Alpine Lifts employee left soon after the crash, citing an increased workload for old buses.

The former employee said before 2017, buses only transported workers between Ohakune and the skifields about two or three times daily.

But a business model shake-up in 2017 meant the company started carrying tourists, and buses sometimes ran 11 trips a day.

The driver told the inquest he shared some of that employee’s concerns.

“The bus was already old and then because of that errand, those kind of things could have caused the accident,” he told the Coroners Court.

Alistair Darroch, counsel for Vehicle Testing New Zealand, asked the driver about brake fade, which referred to a reduction in stopping power due to repeated use.

Darroch said a witness driving behind the bus reported smelling brakes, as did some passengers.

The driver agreed the smell was the tell-tale sign of overheating brakes.

But he refused to accept it was possible he could have overused brakes when going downhill the day of the fatal crash.

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