Race organiser under critical spotlight on TV

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 October, 2011, 12:00am


A Hong Kong-based adventure racing company has come under more criticism in an Australian television programme after two ultramarathon runners were trapped in a bushfire and left fighting for their lives.

Channel 9's 60 Minutes painted a grim picture last week of what some of the 41 competitors faced when a firestorm engulfed the 100-kilometre race in the remote Kimberley region of Western Australia.

Sydney model Turia Pitt, 24, and marathon veteran Kate Sanderson, 35, are still in critical condition after being caught in the bushfires a month ago. Both have burns to 80 per cent to 90 per cent of their bodies. They were among 11 runners who were trapped in a narrow gorge as bushfires changed direction. Police said the fires had burned in the region for up to a week.

Racing the Planet chief executive Mary Gadams - among those taken to the hospital with second-degree burns to her hands, arms and legs - agreed to be interviewed on the current affairs programme, but later cancelled out of respect and concern for the friends and relatives of the two women who were seriously injured.

The show 'may be based on the 60 Minutes programme which is televised in the US, but it's a much more sensationalised tabloid version of that', said Gadams.

She said she would not comment further on the incident until her organisation completed its investigation into what happened. On the programme, reporter Michael Usher described how 'clear signs of danger were ignored and desperate warnings to organisers failed to get through'.

Heather Scott and her partner, Ellis Caffin, were two of the 11 competitors trapped. Usher asked if they had been warned about the bushfires. Caffin said they were mentioned briefly, 'but not something that was impressed upon us as vitally important or some big danger issue to be very careful of'.

Scott said: 'Someone was cavalier with my life and that's not OK.'

Usher spoke to farmer John Storey, who flew his gyrocopter over the race trail at 10am that morning and spotted the fire building up. To him, the danger was obvious, and Storey said he was 'horrified'.

'How do we warn them? How do we stop them? We couldn't get hold of them on the UHF that we normally use up here,' said Storey, referring to ultra high frequency for radio communication. 'Unbeknown to us, it was a different frequency [the organisers] were using.'

Storey said he finally delivered his warning on an aircraft frequency 'but for whatever reason, the race proceeded'.

'They could have re-routed it. If the right messages and the right understanding had got there,' he said.

A local, who has assisted Racing the Planet as a volunteer since last year, was critical of 60 Minutes. The volunteer called the portrayal 'reprehensible' as comments were taken out of context to make it look like warnings had been ignored.

'It was dramatised and aimed straight at Racing the Planet for 'sending' the runners into the fire.'