28 February 2012

Four years in limbo

(Warning: all links in this post direct to pages in Dutch)

It started between Heaven and Earth. Way above limbo, evidently. If you go climbing in a converted church (above mentioned name) you probably think it will end with a day of stiff muscles. And not with, well, four years in Limbo. But sometimes it does.

One of our former postdocs went climbing with her climbing mate, as she always did on Tuesday. Her mate's girlfriend was climbing the route beside her. These often climbed together, too. While the guy was belaying our postdoc he was also keeping half an eye on his girlfriend. Was that what went wrong? When the girlfriend reached the top, abseiled down, and walked past to get to the bar our ill-omened climbing partner took our postdoc out of belay. He did it without thinking, and wasn't even sure himself what has prompted that. Possibly he linked the sight of his girlfriend on the ground with the subconscious assumption he was done belaying.

Our postdoc didn't know that. She either reached the top, and without further ado lowered herself into the rope, or she fell. Either way; she relied on the rope, but found it wasn't attached to anything. She fell, broke her ribs, tore her lung artery, and died.

For her the story was over. For her climbing partner it had only begun. He was charged with manslaughter. He was found guilty, but not prosecuted, as court judged he had suffered enough, and could be trusted not to do anything like this again. And indeed, he will have to live with these memories forever. But was that all there is to say about it?

No. Public prosecution appealed. They figured he had been grossly negligent, and that the court had drawn the wrong conclusions from the fact he had been acting subconsciously. The court saw that as, can we say, mitigating; public prosecution saw it as incriminating. They wanted to see him punished.
This month, almost 4 years later, the final verdict is given. The appeal is rejected. He will no further be hassled by courts.

Why am I mentioning all this? I stumbled across a column in a big Dutch newspaper on this case. And as I knew the girl I was interested. Whatever legal action is performed, we won't get Mirjam back. But my thoughts are with the guy. If such an accident happens it's bad enough; having your face dragged through dirt for four years must make things hell. I hope he can find some peace now.

And the rest of the world? The judge noticed a few almost identical cases had happened; he or she suggested it may be better if indoor climbing happened in such a way that only the climber, and not the belayer, can take him- or herself out of belay; not the belayer. With in the Netherlands only already three accidents like this (one non-fatal) one can see the rationale. I just wonder how feasible it is; that would mean a revolution in climbing kit! Only for a few distracted Dutchies? I wonder if there will be a Dutch law to enforce that. I guess it would be met with lots of moaning, but then again; prevention of the loss of someone like Mirjam is worth quite a lot of that...

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