Flat warned about overcrowding before death of 19yo

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.
Tenants of a Dunedin flat were warned about the risks of overcrowding before Sophia Crestani died there in 2019.

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

Miss Crestani died in a stairwell pile-up at an overcrowded flat party and since then, her parents Elspeth McMillan and Bede Crestani have become activists for safe student behaviour in Dunedin.

The court heard that in May 2019 the Dunedin District Council sent a letter to the landlord of the flat known as "The Manor" which raised concerns about the number of noise complaints and overcrowding.

Following the letter, property manager Jennifer Adamson and an Otago University staff member met with the tenants and discussed the letter.

Ms Adamson said she asked the tenants to "limit the number of people at the property as it was dangerous to have too many people".

She explained she felt the students had taken on her advice and understood the safety risks.

The property manager also sent an email that explained if the issues continued she would have "no option but to refer you to the Tenancy Tribunal".

Ms Adamson completed a flat inspection two days before the party but had "no idea whatsoever" about the party.

"I can’t close down parties, I can’t stop parties," the property manager said.

The court heard "The Manor" had been issued with seven excessive noise directions in 2019, but Ms Adamson was not sure if that meant the tenants could be evicted.

"I cannot determine what number of parties is an unacceptable number," the witness said.

Students gather outside the flat where Sophie Crestani (inset) died in 2019.
Students gather outside the flat where Sophie Crestani (inset) died in 2019.
She explained it was a matter for the Tenancy Tribunal.

Ms Adamson said even after Miss Crestani’s death, she did not consider approaching the tribunal to ask that the lease be terminated.

'Incalculable grief'

A coroner this morning commended Miss Crestani’s parents for their work following the "incalculable" loss of their daughter.

In 2019 the University of Otago unveiled the Sophia Charter: "a shared commitment to the North Dunedin community".

Coroner McKenzie acknowledged the work Miss Crestani’s parents had done following her death.

"You've found the energy and commitment to do this alongside your incalculable grief and loss," Coroner McKenzie said.

"You have opened up significant dialogue and you have achieved change in Dunedin student culture."

The coroner reassured Miss Crestani’s parents that their daughter would be the focus of the inquest.

"A loved one sits right at the centre of why we’re all here," Coroner McKenzie said.

"I certainly do not lose sight of Sophia during this inquest."

The late Sophia Crestani’s parents, Bede Crestani and Elspeth McMillan, outside the Dunedin...
The late Sophia Crestani’s parents, Bede Crestani and Elspeth McMillan, outside the Dunedin courthouse. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Mr Crestani said he had received an abundance of evidence, including 160 police interviews with students.

"We thought it was a tragic accident. . . it took us a while to understand that it wasn't, it was a set of circumstances that had been brewing in this city. . . for a while," Mr Crestani said.

"This is a community problem and it needs everyone to change it."

Both parents explained they were shocked at the student behaviour when they first visited Dunedin.

"[Locals] had become somewhat immune to it. . . and did not perceive the danger," Ms McMillan said.

"It took a death, sadly for us Sophia's death, to wake them up."

Videos of the party and audio of 111 calls were played to the court.

They showed an "atmosphere of panic developed" as the flat known as "The Manor" continued to become more overcrowded.

The court heard it would be the final party before exams and 400 people were invited on Facebook.

Ms McMillan and Mr Crestani explained waiting more than four years for the inquest had been difficult.

"We miss her every moment of every day," Ms McMillan said.

"She ended up crushed and suffocated to death on a dirty floor of a grotty student flat . . . a horrible, preventable, and totally unnecessary way to die."

"We hope that what happened becomes clearer . . . and that improvements are made," Mr Crestani said.

"Once we've dealt with the past we can then go back to the future."

The inquest is expected to last five days and will hear from students at the party, police and Dunedin City Council staff.


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