Australian theme park owner to speak to families as it counts cost of deaths

Australia’s Ardent Leisure Group, the owner of a theme park where four people were killed on a water ride, said it would speak to the victims’ families on Thursday as it defended its safety practices amid intense criticism.

Officials at the company’s annual general meeting said they would offer financial assistance to the families, but rejected media reports that park staff had closed the ride hours before the accident due to safety concerns, only to be pressured into reopening it.

Four killed on river ride at Australia’s biggest theme park

“It’s just a devastating tragedy and it’s still having a lot of problems for all of us to deal with it,” Chairman Neil Balnaves told the meeting in Sydney.

“We will do everything to support the families. It’s a time for grieving and that includes every single one of us.”

Two days before the scheduled meeting, two men and two women were killed after getting trapped under an upturned raft on the Thunder River Rapids Ride at Dreamworld, near the tourist-magnet Gold Coast district in northeastern Queensland state.

The meeting showed the company still in the early stages of managing the aftermath of Australia’s deadliest theme park accident in four decades, instead of the update on U.S. expansion aims that had been scheduled.

Balnaves, who had previously said he would retire after the meeting, said he would help the company with three inquiries into the accident: by the state workplace safety authority, the coroner and the company itself.

Earlier, Ardent said the ride completed an annual safety inspection less than a month ago.

The company also faces a blow to earnings from the accident, Balnaves said, adding it expects them to be affected for the rest of fiscal 2017 and into the following financial year before recovering.

Theme parks generate a quarter of Ardent’s earnings, its 2016 annual report shows. In August, the company said theme park earnings rose 8.5 percent, as a spike in Chinese visitors pushed up admissions by 13 percent.

The incident also put Ardent under pressure to defend executive pay arrangements, since the meeting had been set to consider a share incentive plan for new Chief Executive Deborah Thomas.

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“Four people have died, people are shattered, this is not something people deal with very easily, right now I do not want to discuss transactions,” Thomas told reporters after the meeting, when asked if she would decline the shares. “I’m a mother, I have a family, I take my family to Dreamworld, I am sympathetic.”

In a statement, the company, which had planned a memorial function at the theme park on Friday before reopening on Saturday, said it was postponing both events because of a police investigation, and would give an update on reopening on Monday.

Ardent shares fell 22 percent in the two days after the accident, but recovered 8 percent on Thursday.