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Sophia Crestani death: Barricading doors 'standard' for North Dunedin parties, witnesses say

Author
Ben Tomsett,
Publish Date
Wed, 29 May 2024, 2:29pm
Sophia Crestani, 19, died at this Dundas St flat in October, 2019. Photo / NZME and Linda Robertson.
Sophia Crestani, 19, died at this Dundas St flat in October, 2019. Photo / NZME and Linda Robertson.

Sophia Crestani death: Barricading doors 'standard' for North Dunedin parties, witnesses say

Author
Ben Tomsett,
Publish Date
Wed, 29 May 2024, 2:29pm

An acquaintance of Sophia Crestani says safety methods at the flat party where she died were standard for student parties.

On October 6, 2019, Crestani and hundreds of others crammed into a 114-year-old villa on Dundas St, known as The Manor, where a party dubbed “The Manor presents Maggot-fest” was being held.

The party spiralled out of control as more than 300 people attended, prompting tenants to call police; in the ensuing chaos, Crestani was fatally crushed on the staircase.

Coroner Heather McKenzie began the inquest by stating its task was not to apportion liability but to consider what had happened in Dunedin since Crestani’s death and decide whether any recommendations should be made to help prevent similar deaths.

Sophia Crestani and her mother Elspeth McMillan. Photo / Supplied
Sophia Crestani and her mother Elspeth McMillan. Photo / Supplied

The student was a friend of Crestani’s and knew her through mutual friends at a student hall of residence the prior year. She knew the tenants of The Manor well, and briefly caught up with Crestani upstairs at the party.

The witness told the inquest it was standard for tenants of flats to lock bedroom doors during parties, and her own flatmates had taken similar measures at parties hosted at their named flat including moving furniture in front of doorways.

The inquest previously heard tenants of the Manor barricaded some bedroom doors to limit areas of the party.

“When we hosted parties the priority was trying to keep our own personal belongings safe and locked off,” the witness told the inquest.

She said there was “absolutely” pressure to host big parties. Being in a named flat meant it was a sort of tradition to host them in the big weeks of the student calendar, and it was commonplace for named flats to receive multiple noise complaints.

In her first police statement, which was read to the inquest, the witness said she was attempting to leave upstairs to get some fresh air with a friend when she got to the stairs.

The stairs were packed, and people were trying to descend because the upstairs was full, and the pair were beside each other holding hands, she said.

They were halfway down the stairs when people started swaying. It stopped suddenly, and the witness saw a pile of people at the bottom. People were still pushing to get down the stairs and falling on the pile.

Some people were at the bottom trying to pick people up from under their shoulders.

“One person would fall and they’d get up, then the person behind them would fall onto the pile.”

The witness was separated from her friend but saw a Manor tenant heading to his room, and she screamed for him. He grabbed her hand and pulled her into his room and the door was shut, she said.

When they exited the tenant’s room, the flat had emptied.

Sophia Crestani. Photo / Supplied
Sophia Crestani. Photo / Supplied

Outside, the witness saw a girl being resuscitated and broke down, she also found her friend crying because she had injured her leg in the crush.

Around this time, she heard someone had died.

The witness told the inquest she had been to two big parties at the manor before and thought this one was fairly “same same,” and did not think of how busy it was until she tried to leave.

She said she did not think anyone in the bedroom knew the extent of what was happening outside, and did not think much of “panicked screams” that could be heard as she was focused on contacting her friend.

She accepted there were differences in her second statement to police, and believed this was due to multiple discussions with friends in the four months between statements as it was a traumatic and tough time.

Tenants thought one exit enough for party

A former tenant of the Manor said the party organisers took steps “no different from what anyone [in North Dunedin]” would do.

He told the inquest the tenants had no idea the barricades would have a negative effect, and agreed the measures they took were standard for North Dunedin flat parties in 2019.

He told the inquest the tenants thought they were keeping people safe.

The house at Dundas Street in Dunedin where student Sophia Crestani was reportedly crushed. Photo / Jason Oxenham
The house at Dundas Street in Dunedin where student Sophia Crestani was reportedly crushed. Photo / Jason Oxenham

The tenant spent most of the party upstairs helping organise the upstairs DJ and stopping guests from going onto the flat’s balcony due to concerns for its structural integrity if inundated by large numbers of people.

He told the inquest the upstairs party-goers were ‘oblivious’ to the chaos happening below.

He said throwing parties was not much fun for the organisers, but they threw them for people to have fun and had deemed the prior two parties to be successes.

Around 11pm, he realised the party was getting congested but was not aware of any issues downstairs.

He said the primary issues considered by the tenants were having their speakers seized by authorities, property stolen, or “people not getting along”.

Asked if there was any consideration that people could exit the house, he told the inquest the tenants considered the one exit to be enough.

The inquest continues.

Ben Tomsett is a Multimedia Journalist for the New Zealand Herald, based in Dunedin

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