Family’s horror at school camp death
HIKING through an outback cattle station in near-40C heat, Alexander Li's body shut down.
He clutched his water bottle close to his chest and struggled to walk with 24kgs strapped to his back.
Before he collapsed, the 16-year-old student from the pro-spiritual Huntingtower School in Melbourne's southeast was exposed completely to the midday sun.
Heat stroke took over, he became delusional and his brain swelled. The teen collapsed in the red dirt at the Plumbago Station, 400km north of Adelaide.
His heart stopped working shortly after and he died in the care of ambulance workers.
Three years to the day that Alexander died, his parents are suing the school that sent him to remote South Australia on a school camp like it had with previous students over a period of 40 years.
In a writ filed in the Victorian Supreme Court, Xiao Jung Wei and Yinei Li say their son's death was "entirely avoidable".
They claim staff at the school did not check the temperature on the day Alexander died, failed to "exercise reasonable care and skill" and were "negligent".
Maurice Blackburn principal lawyer Dimi Ioannou said Alexander's death was a terrible and avoidable tragedy.
"Alexander's parents trusted their much-loved son to the school and expected them to take care of him," she told news.com.au in a statement.
"Instead he was made to march through intense heat carrying an extremely heavy backpack. This was an entirely avoidable death.
"Children should never be required to perform such a strenuous activity in such hostile conditions. These children should never have been forced to hike in these temperatures. Alexander's parents remain devastated by their son's death."
In his report, coroner Iain West described how Alexander's condition deteriorated throughout the day.
"At the outset, Alexander was observed to be walking well and remained with the group," he wrote. "According to a fellow student, he was talking to everyone and appeared to be in high spirits.
"After approximately 3km of walking, the group had their first 'packs off' break, lasting around 15 minutes."
Shortly after, Alexander appeared to be "less enthusiastic", according to friends. Fellow student Alexandra Raphael said the rocks were radiating heat so "it felt like heat was coming from above and underneath us".
"Alexander was hugging his water bottle for dear life. He looked tired," she said. "I was pretty fatigued at this point and had a headache … Alex appeared to be fed up with walking.
"He was lying down and it seemed as though he was having a bit of difficulty breathing. His breathing was shallow but it looked like he wanted to breathe deeper."
Alexandra and another student, Tahlia Harper, tried to calm Alexander down. When his breathing had slowed, the pair attempted to help Alexander stand.
Alexandra said later that her friend was wheezing.
"There was a bit of a whistle in his throat, a wheeze, which became more prominent," she said.
At 2.30pm, when the recorded temperature had reached 39.1C, Alexander was no longer able to stand. Staff tried to help him but he was "delusional, yelling out incoherent remarks," according to the coroner's report.
"He attempted to stand but fell into a bush," the coroner wrote. "He was agitated and his breathing was heavy and rapid."
By 2.47pm, Alexander was slumped over, shaking and becoming less responsive. Staff called for a support vehicle to evacuate the teen immediately. It arrived within 10 minutes but Alexander was "barely conscious at this stage", the coroner noted.
Staff poured water over his body to cool him down. He vomited when staff tried to clear his airway.
At 4.43pm, paramedics met the evacuating vehicle. At 6.05pm, there were no signs of life. He was pronounced dead at 11.05pm on February 21, 2016.
Huntingtower School no longer sends students to the remote cattle station. In his report, the coroner recommended holding its school camps during periods of milder heat and that student preparation booklets be updated to reflect the dangers of heat stroke.
In a statement to news.com.au, Huntingtower Principal Sholto Bowen said the community's thoughts remained with Alexander's family and friends.
"The entire school community was devastated by Alexander's death," he said.
"We have been in regular contact with Alex's family over the last two years to offer whatever support we can. The welfare of our students and staff was and always will be paramount."