Crestani inquest: Witnesses tell of flat crush terror

Sophia Crestani (inset) died during an overcrowded party at a student flat known as "The Manor"...
Sophia Crestani (inset) died during an overcrowded party at a student flat known as "The Manor" in Dunedin's Dundas St.

A party host has described being “all tangled up in the bodies” in the Dunedin flat stairwell pile-up where Sophia Crestani died.

Coroner Heather McKenzie’s inquest into the 19-year-old’s death continued today at Dunedin.

Miss Crestani died in a stairwell pile-up in 2019 at an overcrowded flat party dubbed “Maggot Fest”.

Since then, her parents -  Elspeth McMillan and Bede Crestani  - have advocated for safe student behaviour in the city.

A tenant of “The Manor”, who has interim name suppression, was involved in the pile-up and did not remember how he got from the top of the stairwell to the bottom.

“The stairwell was packed with people, no one was moving,” he said.

“People started pushing from the top of the stairs.” 

The witness thought there were up to 30 people in the pile-up.

“I knew there [were] a lot of people in the pile-up. . . there was so much weight,” he said.

He said his leg was stuck and people trampled over him to get out the door.

The tenant recalled being “all tangled up in the bodies” at the bottom of the stairs.

Another party-goer and “good friend” of Miss Crestani’s, Annelise Lockie, was also involved in the pile-up of bodies.

“I was terrified, I thought that I was going to die,” she said.

“I felt completely hopeless.”

She and some friends spent about an hour at the hospital waiting for Miss Crestani to show up.

Coroner McKenzie teared up when thanking Ms Lockie for her evidence, and said it was “incredibly moving”.

Another tenant, who has interim name suppression, was romantically involved with Miss Crestani.

He said he and Miss Crestani had “a thing” and at the party he gave her a hug and kiss before heading to his room.

The tenant explained later when emergency services arrived he left the house and people were hugging him.

“I was just confused and didn't know what happened,” he said.

Someone told him they thought Miss Crestani was not breathing and another said someone had been stabbed.

“I didn't want to believe it so I didn't ring her or try [to] contact her,” he said.

“I was too scared to find out the truth.”

The late Sophia Crestani’s parents, Bede Crestani and Elspeth McMillan. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
The late Sophia Crestani’s parents, Bede Crestani and Elspeth McMillan. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
The witness stayed at a friend's house but was struggling to sleep.

Someone he knew knocked on the window and told him Miss Crestani had died.

He explained at the party “the staircase was packed” and it took about 10 minutes to get from one end to the other but he did not think that was an issue.

Mr Crestani asked what steps were taken to ensure the safety of party-goers.

The witness explained “The Manor” hosted two large parties earlier that year and they prepared for this one in the same way.

“We did not foresee anything bad happening,” he said.

“That's what [we'd] always done and that's always been sufficient.” 

He said the party was invite only, they had notified campus watch about it and registered the party with the Good One Party Register.

Previously, a police officer had suggested the upstairs exits to the balcony be blocked off as people had thrown cans from it before, he said.

The witness explained that was why the tenants barricaded the doors to the balcony for the party.

'One of the worst decisions we’ve ever made' 

A tenant at the flat earlier said the party felt safe to him.

He gave evidence that there had been two parties of a similar size that year.

The inquest heard 400 people were invited on Facebook and the witness said that was normal and they did not expect everyone invited to attend.

The witness, who has interim name suppression, said the North Dunedin environment created some pressure to host parties, especially in a named flat.

"Whether it's right or wrong there seems to be an expectation to have parties, and have parties we did," the witness said.

He told police people started "pouring in" at about 8pm.

"It appeared to be just like the other parties we had run," he said.

"The party felt safe to me."

The witness explained he spent most of the night in a bedroom with some mates and the door was locked.

Party-goers gave statements which said people were banging on the door but nobody opened it.

"The presence of the smacking and the pounding on the door didn't raise alarm bells for me at the time," the tenant said.

"When I was in the party I didn't see . . . anything out of the ordinary at the time."

He said when he left his room before 11pm he noticed the stairs were crowded and slow moving.

Ms McMillan asked the witness if he thought opening the door to let people into his room could have eased the congestion in other rooms and possibly prevented Miss Crestani’s death.

"Obviously yes," the witness said before becoming upset and explaining he thinks about it often.

He said they had barricaded doors in the house to prevent people from entering specific rooms and to stop them from getting onto the external balcony.

The witness explained the tenants had the 2016 balcony collapse in mind when boarding up the doors and believed this would help contain the party and prevent a similar situation.

"Retrospectively that was one of the worst decisions we’ve ever made," the tenant said before breaking down in tears.

Mr Crestani asked what the witness did to look after the health and safety of the guests.

"Not much. Nothing," he replied.

Mr Crestani asked the witness why the flat would host a party despite multiple noise complaints, excessive noise directions and a letter from the Proctor which raised concerns about overcrowding in 2019.

Following the letter, the property manager had a meeting with some of the tenants and discussed the dangers of overcrowding and the noise issue.

"At the time, it seemed as if the property manager was out to get you," the witness said.

"The significance of the letter would not have been noted at the time."

The inquest will continue tomorrow and more party-goers are expected to give evidence.