Newspaper Article 1938 – Kopuawhara Disaster





Torrent Overwhelms East Coast Railway Camp

TWENTY-ONE lives were lost when, following a cloudburst, a mountain stream became a raging torrent and overwhelmed a Public Works camp on the East Coast railway construction scheme at Kopuawhara, about 35 miles north of Wairoa, before dawn on Saturday. Eighteen of the bodies, including that of the only woman victim, had been recovered by Sunday night.

The camp, which nestles at the foot of steep, wooded hills, consisted of three sections. All were located in an elbow of the Kopuawhara Stream, the married men occupying high ground on either side of a depression in which the single men’s quarters were located. The camp for single men, directly In the path of the wall of water that poured without warning from above while the occupants were sleeping, was demolished and 20 of the men, together with a waitress, were swept to their death. The married men’ s homes were beyond the reach of the flood.

So sudden was the onslaught that those trapped on the lower ground had no warning of impending disaster. They went to bed on Friday night with the stream at its normal level and had a tragic awakening at 3.30 next morning when the flood engulfed them. A roaring cataract of yellow water charged with huge boulders, which were tossed like pebbles, tree trunks and debris, jumped the banks of the stream and poured over the doomed camp. Barely awake, the occupants fought for their lives in pitch darkness and bitter cold.

Rushing at fully 35 miles an hour, according to eyewitnesses, the stream rose at the rate of feet per minute until hundreds of acres of land below were inundated. In the camp itself, rocky cliffs kept the torrent within narrow bounds but only served to increase its tremendous velocity.

A stoutly-built bridge was swept away, and its timbers and foundations were hurled upon the 57 tents and huts ranged in neat rows over a length of about 100 yards. Battered by giant logs, great pieces of the bridge and rocks that were rolled unseen beneath the surface and swept by the ever- increasing force of the current, the buildings collapsed like matchwood.

Taken completely by surprise and chest-deep in the swirling water, men and youths rose above mere thoughts of selfpreservation in the crisis, and proved themselves heroes. Many gave their lives for others, sacrificing their chances of escape to save their friends. Stories of the heroic deaths of many of those lost were falteringly told by men for whom the sacrifices had been made. The district rang with praise for spontaneous and often successful attempts at rescue by men counted among the dead. The bonds between those who worked together were never more severely tested and never more completely proved.


Most of the Bodies Recovered

The victims of the disaster are:-

Miss Martha Quinn, aged 22, single, a waitress at the cookhouse, whose parents reside in Gisborne.
Mr. William Auld, aged 55, single, of Napier.
Mr. George Barbarich, aged 32, single, He has a brother at Marton.
Mr. David Barclay, aged 56, single, of Auckland.
Mr. Frederick I. C. Clark, aged 31, single, His father lives at Gisborne.
Mr. George H. Davis, aged 49, married.
Mr. R. Douglas, aged 28, single, of Gisborne.
Mr. William Dunn, aged 64, married, of Christchurch. He was the camp sergeant.
Mr. Frank W. Fry, aged 51, married, of Gisborne.
Mr. F. G. Fountain, aged 25, single. His uncle lives at Te Puke.
Mr. Thomas Hall, aged 35, single, of Gisborne.
Mr. Ron E. Halford, aged 22, single. His family lives at Woodville.
Mr. Robert Johnston, aged 40, single, of Wairoa.
Mr. John Kelliher, aged 51, single, of Wellington.
Mr. Ivan Martinac, aged 3l, single. He has an uncle at Palmerston North.
Mr. Edward McGiven [McGivern], aged 28, single, of Gisborne.
Mr. J. Pender, aged 40, married. His wife lives at 22a Halsey Drive, Mount Roskill, Auckland.
Mr. Hugh Sloan, single, who recently arrived from Ireland.
Mr. Ted E. Smith, aged 37, single, a son of Mr. J.H. Smith, Patutahi, Gisborne.
Mr. Tom Tracey; aged 44, married with a wife and children in Wairoa.
Mr. W. Waaka, aged 25, single, a Maori, of Mohaka.

The bodies of Messrs. Halford, Martinac and Davis have not yet been recovered.


Situated two and a-half miles above the settlement that was overwhelmed, the No. 5 camp escaped relatively lightly. However, the water came over a low-lying portion of the site and several of the huts in the married men’s quarters were threatened. One occupant was carrying two children to safety when he fell, losing one of his charges. The child was washed away, but was speedily rescued.


After being carried for about six miles in the raging torrent from the hills, one of the victims of the Kopuawhara disaster apparently died when security was in his very grasp. He was discovered dead, clinging to a fence on the property of Mr. Alan Jobson, with a knoll of dry ground only several feet away.




A hero who saved many lives only to lose his own was Mr. Tom Tracey. Regardless of the risk he ran and deliberately ignoring a tempting chance of escape by way of a bridge, which withstood the first onslaught of the flood, he beat the gong to arouse the sleeping men and women. Finally he made a round of the camp, knocking at each door and shouting a warning. He disappeared, while those he had awakened were given a chance to reach safety.

Glowing references to Mr. Tracey’s unselfish action, which they said, saved many lives, were made by survivors. Mr R. Blair summed up the unanimous opinion when he said, “He gave his life for the men”

“He seemed to think of everyone but himself,” Mr Blair said. “He got hold of the gong from the front of the cook-house, with George McLean and “Buff” Hampden, and kept beating it to wake everyone.

“The bridge spanning the stream was still standing at this time and Tom and the others could have got away. McLean and Hampden were saved , but Tracey was lost. He made a round of the camp, and after finishing with the gong, which some of us took for a practical joke, he beat on the door of every hut.

At the hut occupied by the fore-man, Mr. F. Yeo, who is hard of hearing, he wasted no time in knocking. He went straight in and pulled him out of bed. Mr. Yeo was seen later floating downstream, astride a wood and iron chimney, and we grabbed him and pulled him up on the roof, from where we were all eventually rescued.

“Tom Tracey continued his rounds” Mr. Blair added. ” He was chest deep in the water, which was rapidly rising and was last seen struggling to one of the last standing huts. His body was later recovered over three miles down-stream.”

First survivors of the disaster to reach Waikokopu: Messrs. R. Blair (left) and H. Trainor resting on Saturday night after their terrible ordeal.

8   THE WEEKLY NEWS   February 23, 1938


Man who Rode a Log and Escaped from Death


Owing their lives to chance, with their nerves strained almost to breaking point, and bearing numerous abrasions to testify to the battering they had suffered, two men lived through the horrors of the early-morning disaster again as they described it at Waikokopu on Sunday. They were Messrs. R. Blair, of Auckland and H. Trainor, a recent arrival from Ireland

Tucked safely in bed, and surrounded by friends anxious to do anything to add to their comfort, they were still ill at ease. One smoked endless cigarettes while he talked,, and the other, sorrowing at the loss of two intimate friends, added only occasional terse remark to the conversation

Moving Story

While the tragic story was told, friends filled the hut set aside for Messrs. Blair and Trainor, the first two survivors to be bought as far as Waikokopu. Many of those listening were obviously moved as they learned for the first time and from eye-witnesses details of the deaths of friends.

“There was no thought of tragedy on Friday night – in fact, arrangements had been with enthusiasm for a swimming carnival in the stream on the following day,” Mr. Blair said “The camp was quiet by 9.30 o’clock except for a few radios, and it was not until six hours later that the awakening came

“I had been only four days at the camp, and was in a hut alone. I was sound asleep when a chap named Jim Doreen shook me and woke me [……]

Mr. Blair added “I tried to reach a lorry on which 11 men were eventually swept to their doom, but unfortunately my efforts were unavailing. A tree fully 30ft long loomed up out of the darkness. I abandoned my timber and clambered astride, riding at breakneck speed downstream.

“The front end of the cookhouse had gone completely, but the other three walls were standing. The log floated straight into the wrecked building and stopped with a crash against the far wall. I broke a window and climbed on to the roof”

About a dozen other men were on the roof of the cookhouse, and a few seconds later the number was increased unexpectedly by one. A hut, carried bodily away, came floating by with a man named Lucas astride it. He took a flying leap and landed safely on the roof.

Feeling their refuge collapsing under them, the party of survivors jumped onto the roof of the caterer’s quarters adjoining. They were just in time. The roof on which they had been standing broke up as its supports were washed away.

Mother’s Frantic Worry

“The caterer, Harold Cameron, and Mrs. Cameron, were inside” and stated “Three of us scrambled down and got them on to the roof. Mrs. Cameron was frantic with worry for her five-year-old daughter, Joan who was in one of the tents. A 17-year-old son, Harold, was in another.

“At the start, we could not get near them. The boy Cameron saved the life of another employee, Jim Cronin, seizing his clothes as he was swept by the boy’s tent, but he was unable to help Bob Johnston, who was carried past at the same time and was drowned. The boy Cameron and his sister eventually reached the roof in safety.

At the same time, a man named McCorkindale [McCorquodale], and Jim Cronin, whose ribs and knees seemed badly hurt, were helped up to the roof. One of the men on the side of the roof, Fred Clark, suddenly let go and disappeared in the water. The strain must have been too great for him.”

“We’ll Die Game”

Faint cries for help from somewhere near the chimney were heard by Mr. Blair and one of the others, Mr. George McLean. They hauled up Mr. “Buff” Hampden, half-drowned. He was unconscious by the time he had been […]

others in shirts only, just as we had rushed out. There were heart-rending cries for help. Three men on one roof sang out almost cheerfully: “We’ll die game.” this was just before they went.

“We thought we were gone, too. We yelled in chorus so that the people in the married quarters, 150 yards away on top of the cliff, could hear us above the roar of the water. Phil Stapp, who is in charge of the Y.M.C.A at the camp, turned the lights of his car on to us, and we could see crowds on the bank watching men drown, but unable to help.

Optimist in a Tent

“Before daylight, we noticed a light flare suddenly in a tent held in place only by driftwood. This tent and one other had floated a considerable distance, and were the only ones left standing above the cookhouse. We decided to investigate as soon as it was safe.

“When light came I waded through water 2ft deep to the tent in which the light had showed. There was about 2ft of silt on the floor piled to within an inch or so of the bottom of the bed, on which Charlie Chesley was lying. He was holding aloft a small suitcase in one hand and a lighted cigarette in the other. “Boy” he greeted me, “I’ve got a dry change for both of us”! We shook hands.

Organised rescue work was being planned. From the married quarters was thrown a stone with a fishing line attached, and as soon as this had been secured by one of the survivors from the flooded camp a heavier line was made fast and hauled across. A block with a sling attached was rigged as breeches buoy, and no time was lost in transferring, first, those suffering severely, then Mrs. Cameron, and finally the rest of the men. Joan Cameron was lashed to Mr. Blair in case […] and the two crossed […]

[…] tea and coffee, as well as […] supplies of spirits, were ready […] rescued. The survivors paid [tribute] to the work of all who […] mentioning particularly the […] Rupe Rangi, a Maori of […] strength and Mr. P. […]

Scene of Desolation

“It was about six o’clock, and we could get a clear view of the camp, or, rather, what was left of it” Mr. Blair said. “All that remained of the 57 huts and tents, blacksmith’s shop, bathhouse, dining room and caterer’s staff huts, were part of the dining room and four tents. Nobody saved anything. Men lost musical instruments, radio sets, golf clubs, clothing and money. One man lost ₤40 in accumulated savings.

Even though it had not receded, the yellow flood was still pouring down. It had been 6ft. higher than the known record level,” he explained.

“After a hot meal those of the survivors who were able made their way upstream to communicate with the other section of the married men’s quarters, where there was no knowledge of the tragedy. Mr. Le Grove had given us a note explaining the position. We put it in a glass, rammed sand on top of it and threw it across the river. The note said that 20 men had gone, that food and medical supplies were short and asked a message to be sent to base camp”

Search for the Missing

An immediate search for their friends found to be missing after a roll call was begun by the survivors. They travelled a mile below the camp, climbing over the hill as the road had gone. Rupe Rangi and Mr. Stapp had just found the bodies of Mr. Waaka and Mr. Johnston. The searchers found their way blocked by a slip and returned to camp.

Prompt response to the appeal was made by the men at the base camp. A party arrived with ropes, tackle and a medicine chest. Three more breeches buoys were rigged and the rescue party joined the survivors and lent them aid. Single men were ordered to evacuate the wrecked camp, and they walked to the base camp. There they learned that 16 bodies had been recovered, some as far away as six miles below camp.

“Feared an Earthquake”

Motor transport was waiting to take the survivors to more comfortable quarters. Messrs. Blair and Trainor were brought to Waikokopu.

Mr. Trainor had little to say of his escape. A hut lifted free and smashed against that in which he was sleeping, waking him. He feared an earthquake and said the din of rushing water and grinding boulders was like […]




Gallant but futile efforts to locate Miss Martha Quinn, the only woman who perished, were made by two of the doomed men.

“Miss Quinn, who was a favourite in the camp lived in a hut behind the cookhouse. In its position it would get the full force of the torrent,” said Mr. R. Blair, one of the survivors, who told a complete story of the tragedy. “It is believed that her hut was actually the first to be swept away.

“Two men, one middle-aged and the other in his twenties, gave their lives trying to locate her. A particular friend, Eddie McGiven, whose hut was only a chain away, plunged into the raging flood with a gelignite box as his support, trying desperately to reach the girl’s hut. It was not there. There was not even a trace of it, but he kept on.

“Eddie was frantic. He kept blindly trying to reach the spot, where the girl’s hut had stood, until he was swallowed up. We lost sight of him in a few seconds.

“A man named Frank Fry, who was on the cookhouse roof with us, was the other who gave his life in this way. We tried to stop him going to look for Martha, but it was no use. He called out “I’ll give it a go,” and in spite of the efforts of McLean and myself, both of us knowing that she was lost, he went hand over hand along the edge of the roof. He, too, disappeared. We never heard a sound, but the water got him, and Martha too”


Swept away in “Jumble of Bodies”


Tragic error of judgement on the part of 11 men, who put their faith in the ability of a 4½-ton motor-lorry to withstand the torrent, resulted in the death of them all.

A horrified witness of this major tragedy was Mr. R. Blair, one of the few who survived the sudden torrent. He was astride a log, being carried helplessly onward, when the men on the lorry called to him to join them. He tried and failed, and a moment later saw the lorry with it’s human freight engulfed by the flood.

With the horror of it all so fresh in his mind, Mr. Blair was barely coherent as he told of the tragedy.

“I saw 11 men drown,” he said. “As I came past on the log they yelled to me to come to them. They thought they were safe.

“Ronnie Halford, Douglas and Fountain were the only three that I knew. They were all together there on the big 4½-ton truck, and could do nothing to help me as I was swept by. The truck used for carrying shingle, was sideways-on to the stream, and the water and stones turned it over.

“It was pitch dark, but I was only a few feet away and could see the whole thing. The men were just hurled into the torrent and swept away. They were rushed past my log. It was just a jumble of hands and arms and bodies in the water.

“They called for help when the truck started to tip, but there was nobody to help them. It was the finish of them then.

“All 11 of them disappeared in a flash. There was not even a call once the truck had gone, or if there was it was drowned by the roar of the water and the terrific grinding of the boulders and smashing of timber.

The big truck was just like a plaything in the grip of the current. It was turned over and over until it disappeared in the darkness. The bonnet was picked up later eight miles downstream. That was all that was found of it. The rest simply disappeared and was probably smashed to pieces.

“The tragedy of it is that the 11 men who were lost had had ample time to reach the cookhouse, where the survivors were in safety. They preferred the truck, thinking” it more secure.





A trail of wreckage, mute witness to the violence of the water, led from the flat land six miles from the scene of the tragedy to the site of the wrecked camp. Helpers arriving from Waikokopu on Sunday saw sodden mattresses hanging on strained fences, sheets of roofing iron twisted like wa[x] round trees, and articles of clothing lying half-submerged in stagnate pools. Everywhere masses of timber, unsawn logs and pieces of doors or walls littered the lower part of the Kopuawhara Valley.

Motor cars could be driven only a short distance up the valley road unaided. A waiting tractor hauled them through soft heaps of silt, and at the No. 3 camp parties had to leave their cars on account of the road being completely demolished, and strike out over the precipitous spurs toward the wrecked camp higher up the valley.

Labours to Restore Order

Standing in groups where little more than 24 hours earlier 21 people had fought vainly for life, parties of residents and visitors laboured to restore some semblance of order. Theirs was an almost impossible task, so hopelessly jammed and locked together was the wreckage that had survived the flood.

The end of the site nearest the source of the of the stream was almost bare. Piles of soft silt concealed what wreckage lay there, but near the other end there was a great heap of mingled wood and iron that had been the cook-house and dining room. Retaining little resemblance to its original form, the building was filled with debris and a weird miscellany of articles swept from the huts and tent above.

Buried Motor-car

Broken lamps, half -buried in silt, lay beside torn clothing and decaying vegetables. Amazingly intact, a few bottles still rested on a shelf, and beneath the great heap of twisted iron was a motor-car. Crushed by the weight pressing it into the silt, the car was barely visible. Half- hearted efforts to dig it out were made, but the work was beyond the power of men. A steam-navvy might have succeeded. But a change of explosives would have probably have been the best way of removing the tottering heap of ruins.

Bereft of all personal belongs, some of the survivors, cared for with spontaneous generosity by the more fortunate residents of the camp, still walked about hoping to find some of their scattered possessions. One was looking vainly for a purse of money, another for new clothing recently purchased, and others for anything of value that might remain. Nothing was found, beyond useless scrarps [scraps] that might have come from any one of the tents or huts.

Spirit of Kindliness

Among the stricken people kind hearted neighbours moved to help. Small acts of kindness, the providing of tea for men trying to build a temporary bridge, the lending of clothes and money, too, to those who had lost all they possessed of either, and the helping in a vain quest for some treasured  possession irrecoverably lost, passed almost unnoticed, they were so common. A general spirit of kindliness prevailed, those who had not suffered shouldering a full share of the burdens of those who had.



Securing himself to a butment [abutment] by a piece of electric cable, Mr. Hugh McCorquodale supported a child, Joan Cameron, for more than an hour while the flood was at its height. An elderly man, he was severely exhausted by his efforts, but contrived to hold the girl until the water subsided.

A brother of the girl, Harold Cameron, aged 15, was responsible for an act of bravery rated highly by other survivors. He awoke to find two feet of water surrounding the tent and, in attempting to join his parents, who were in another tent, he found it impossible to force his way through the rush of water. The chimney of his hut fell across the doorway, and he jumped into the water, but had to return to the doubtful security of the hut when he was struck by debris. It was at this time that he saw a heavily-built man, Mr. James Cronin, in danger of being swept away from the flooded settlement.

At the risk of losing his own footing he grasped Mr. Cronin and pulled […]

Photo caption – Miss Martha Quinn, a victim of the flood.


Gisborne, Poverty Bay, Wharerata, Kopuawhara (camp No. 4), Kopuawhara R., Morere, Nuhaka, Waikokopu, Wairoa, Wairoa R.


Searching for Bodies

In Path of Cataract


With all communications severed by the torrential rain and high flood, news of the disaster in the No. 4 camp was slow to reach the four other settlements in the district. However, when rescue parties were formed, every available man volunteered for service and a search was immediately commenced for the bodies of the victims.

One of the first to realise the magnitude of the disaster was Mr. Alan Jobson, a farmer whose property lies on either side of the stream about six miles from the site of the doomed camp. The piteous bleating of lambs awakened him shortly after dawn and he discovered that the house was completely surrounded by water. As he surveyed the scene, he noticed a man float by clinging to a mattress. Plunging into the chilly water, he secured the man, but found him to be dead.

Severe Injuries

Forcing his horse through water that was at times so deep that the animal was obliged to swim, Mr. Jobson rode to the house of a neighbour and from there telephoned Constable Houston, of Nuhaka. A search on the property was subsequently instituted and a further three bodies were recovered on Saturday. All the victims bore evidence of having been severely injured, apparently as a result of being struck by heavy timber and other debris.

Shortly after Mr. Jobson’s original discovery, advice of the disaster filtered through to the No. 1 camp at Waikokopu where several men were selected to accompany the foreman, Mr. G. Foster, on a tour of inspection. The height of the flood prevented a thorough examination being made, but the mass of equipment being carried to the sea in the turgid, swollen stream suggested that at least one camp further in the hills had been washed out.

Clothing Torn Away

Some 35 men, clad in bathing costumes, shorts or storm clothing, manned motor-cars and a lorry and set out for the No. 3 camp. Forcing their way through a layer of silt that was often 3ft. or 4ft. deep, they recovered the bodies of nine men who were known to belong to the ill-fated No. 4 camp. Their clothing torn from them, the victims were in many cases shockingly injured.

At the No. 2 camp, where some damage occurred, principally from silting, there was little thought that the No. 4 settlement might have suffered more severely, and the real tragedy of the flood was bought to the notice of these men only later in the morning. Men from No. 3 camp discovered a severe wash-out on the road leading further up-stream, and it was while they were discussing this situation that one of the married men from the No. 4 camp who was seeking assistance called to them from across the river.

Formidable Task

The search was continued on Sunday. A large lorry, containing 60 men and a police party, left Waikokopu at 7.30. a.m. and their efforts were concentrated on the wide mouth of the valley for a distance of two miles out to sea. However, settlers had several hours earlier discovered the body of Miss Martha Quinn near the sea. Subsequently the body of Mr. Ted Smith was found by searchers from the Nos. 2 and 3 camps further upstream.

The party from Waikokopu was confronted with a tremendous task. Paddocks were littered with debris. Work had to be done, moreover, in what was practically liquid mud.

Swift Reaction

Reaction among the survivors and helpless witnesses of the tragedy was prompt. Some spoke quietly of the scenes in the early-morning disaster, others presented a bold front and concealed their nervous strain, and a few, prostrated with grief and shock, could bear no spoken reference to it in their presence. The grim reminders in the wrecked camp below were sufficient.

Prominent among the organisers of help for those trapped in the single men’s camp. Mr. P. Stapp, representative of the Y.M.C.A. in the settlement, told how he and Mrs. Stapp were awakened at three o’clock in the morning by a cry from an unknown Man.

Cry of Horror

“All the men are drowning” shouted in tones of horror outside his window was Mr. Stapp’s first inkling of the tragedy. His house commands a view of the site, but darkness was unrelieved by a single gleam. The water had interrupted the power supply, and from the lower level came only confused calls, the roaring of the water, and the endless grinding of boulder upon boulder.

“I remembered my car, as a possible source of light,” Mr. Stapp said. “I drove her up the bank and turned on the headlights, which probably were a help.

“The water was rushing by at 30 to 35 miles an hour. It was the better part of 6ft. deep, and was filled with stones and timber. It rose at the rate of feet a minute instead of inches an hour, and after wrecking the camp it subsided almost equally suddenly.”

Theories About Cause

Opinions regarding the possible cause of the sudden onrush of water varied. Some members of the community believed that slips higher up the stream had made a dam, which had burst, releasing the pent-up waters in a mighty flood. Others, and these included engineers, thought that there had been a cloudburst higher up the valley, and that a great mass of water had suddenly been poured into the stream, transforming it into a torrent in an instant.

Severely shaken by the loss of so many friends and acquaintances, Mrs. H. Cameron, the only women in the wrecked camp to escape, was profoundly grateful for the fact that her husband and two children, as well as herself had been spared. She could not bring herself to speak much of the tragedy. With her family close beside her, she spent the day with friends.

“Darkness was the horror of the whole thing” Mrs. Cameron said. “Had they been able to see, some of them might have saved themselves.”


Forty-Seven Sleeping People Roused

Tragedy was nearly repeated in the case of the No. 2 camp. Rising about 20ft. with almost incredible swiftness, the Kopuawhara Stream threatened the lives of the 47 sleeping residents and, in the hurried evacuation to higher ground, a few personal possessions were saved.

Although situated about three miles below the No. 4 camp, the settlement suffered severely. In low-lying sections the huts were covered with water. The swift current, charged with huge boulders, logs and other debris, caused havoc. A heavy motor-truck was lifted bodily and carried downstream for about one and a-half miles before deposited, extensively damaged, on a farm.

The plight of the occupants was vividly described by Mr. R. Gilberd.  He said he and his room-mate had gone to sleep without switching off the light. He was awakened at about 3.30 a.m. when a power failure occurred.

Shrieking a Warning

“I was surprised but not altogether alarmed to discover that water was trickling into the tent,” Mr. Gilberd said. “When my companion talked about a flood, I told him not to be silly and to get back to bed. Then I noitced [noticed] water coming under the door and decided to put on my gumboots and investigate. Less than a yard from the entrance to the hut I stepped into water above my knees.

“Then suddenly, the alarm was sounded. One man rushed from hut to hut shrieking a warning. My mate grabbed some belongings and made to follow me but a huge log, tossing madly in the current, threw him off his feet. He regained his balance but lost his belongings.

“Everyone was making his way to a garage on higher ground, which seemed secure from the flood. Here the shivering people huddled, wet through and disconsolate. Two women clad in night attire were included in the group, but a third, Miss Marion Nugent, a waitress at the camp was missing.

Stayed Behind to Dress

“It was discovered that Miss Nugent had stayed behind to dress,” Mr Gilberd continued. “Realising her plight, a close friend, Mervyn Hoggard, after seeing some of the other chaps to safety, plunged back into the flood to her assistance. It was no easy task. Finally, he lashed an emergency fire hose between a power pole and the cookhouse and this enabled them to get safely to higher ground.

Another man, Mr. Tom Castles, had only one thought when the warning was sounded. That was for his violin. Holding it aloft above the water he reached the garage in safety but almost immediately returned to the flooded camp to aid another waitress, Miss Florence Wilson, who was calling for assistance.




The Minister of Public works, the Hon. R. Semple, showed great concern over the news of the Kopuawhara Disaster. He stated that nobody would have dreamed that such a thing was possible on that camp-site. The locality had been used for camps since the work was originally started. It was not like putting a camp in a valley near a stream with a liability to floods. It seemed 100 per cent safe, for there never seemed any sign of danger.

“It is just one of those terrible happenings, which can only be described as an act of God, for which no human being is to blame,” said Mr. Semple. “I know this camp-site, and the news has come as a terrible shock to me. I cannot adequately express my feelings of regret at the loss of those useful boys, who were rendering a great service to the department and the country. It is an immeasurable loss, and my deepest sympathy goes out to their relatives and friends.

Everything possible is […]





“I deeply regret to learn of the disaster which has overwhelmed a camp of single men at Kopuawhara, near Waikokopu, on the East Coast railway construction works,” said the Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. M. J. Savage, “It can only be described […] visitation.

“The information is sufficient to show the extent and sadness of this terrible happening,” said Mr Savage. “It is not easy to express one’s feelings in the face of such a calamity. The causes were entirely beyond the control of man, and no human wisdom or foresight could have averted the disaster. The men were a fine type, and had been rendering very useful service to their country.

“I feel that I am not only expressing the feelings of the Government, but those of all the people, when I say that heartfelt sympathy will go out to the relatives of the victims.”

Immediately he received news of the Kopuawhara disaster, the Minister of Public Works, the Hon. R. Semple, conferred with Mr. J. Woods, engineer-in-chief and the under-secretary of the Public Works Department. The inspecting engineer of the Public Works Department left Wellington for the scene of the disaster.



Although subsequent tallies have not justified the earlier estimates that stock losses amounted to many thousands of head, it is expected that the flooding of the Kopuawhara Stream resulted in at least 1500 sheep and several hundred cattle being carried out to sea.

Photo captions –

Mr. A. Jobson

After the flood waters had subsided: Salvaging belongings form one of the wrecked huts.

Mr. R. Gilberd, one of the survivors.

10   THE WEEKLY NEWS   February 23 1938


Burial of Flood Victims


Four of the victims of the Kopuawhara tragedy were buried in the Taruheru Cemetery, Gisborne, on Monday, the pallbearers being workmates, friends and relatives. Two friends, Mr. Hugh Sloan and Mr. Edward McGivern, were interred in adjoining graves, and Mr. George Henry Davis, a returned soldier, was buried with military honours.

There was a large concourse of mourners at the funeral of Miss Martha Quinn, the 21-year-old waitress at the camp, who had been a universal favourite, many of the survivors making the journey to Gisborne to attend her funeral. Miss Quinn was to have come home to Gisborne last Friday for her father’s birthday on Saturday, but she decided to stay at the camp overnight and return on Saturday morning.

The wife and two children of one of the victims, Mr G. Barbarich, are at present on their way from Dalmatia to New Zealand. They are expected to arrive in two or three weeks.

Funeral Delayed

Arrangements were made for the funeral of at least seven victims of the disaster to take place at Wairoa on Monday, but advice was received from the Commissioner of police at Wellington, giving instructions to hold the funeral until Tuesday at 11 o’clock. The change in the time of the funeral is believed to have been made at the instigation of members of the Cabinet, some of whom arrived in Wairoa from Wellington for the purpose of attending.

The majority of the bodies have been claimed by relatives. One has been forwarded to Auckland, one to Te Puke, one to Wellington, one to Opotiki, one to Waipukurau, and five to Gisborne. The remainder, with exception of possibly two, will be buried in a communal grave at Wairoa.

Plight of Women

The plight of two women in the camp above No. 4 is causing some concern. They are expectant mothers, and the camp is completely isolated by road. Frantic efforts are being made to restore road communication to enable a district nurse to get through.



A message of sympathy has been sent by the Governor-General, Viscount Galway, and Lady Galway to the relatives of those who lost their lives in the floods in the Kopuawhara Valley on Saturday.

February 23, 1938   THE WEEKLY NEWS   11


Mute Evidence of Havoc Wrought by Past  Floods


By a special Correspondent

The Kopuawhara Valley, scene of Saturday morning’s disaster, is a cleft, about 12 miles long, in the mass of hills which separates the Poverty Bay flats from Hawke’s Bay. From the sea at Opoutama, right at the neck of the flat, sandy isthmus which unites the Mahia Peninsula to the mainland, it tapers back into the hills. For the first four or five miles from the sea it is comparatively wide, and the valley floor consists of grassy flats, strewn with large stones, which speak eloquently of the havoc wrought by the floods in the past.

The impression given by the Minister of Public Works that the valley is not generally liable to floods can hardly be strictly accurate. It used to be the route of the old coach road and one of the reasons why the road was abandoned long ago, and not restored until the railway engineers reconstructed it, was the difficulty of maintaining it owing to frequent flooding.

Danger Recognised

That railway engineers, in locating the course of the East Coast line at this point, recognised the danger of floods, is evident from the fact that the railway line, instead of traversing the valley floor, is built high above it. At sea level at Waikokopu, the line crosses an arm of the harbour there on an embankment, then swings north into the Kopuawhara Valley and traverses the hillsides along the eastern edge of the valley, climbing steadily all the time.

The Kopuawhara valley lent itself admirably to the purposes of those who plotted out the route, in that it affords a gradual approach to the largest tunnel on the whole line, the Tikiwhata tunnel, two miles long. The highest point on the line, 600 feet above sea level, is reached in the middle of the Tikiwhata tunnel, which is barely ten miles from Waikokopu. Practically all this climb is done in the Kopuawhara valley.

The stricken camp, No. 4, was located just beyond the last of the arable flats and was completely hemmed in by hills. Its situation on a grassy shelf between the hillside and the stream made it the prettiest camp on the whole line. The railway having crossed to the […] had to push a line through. The valleys are deep and wild, the hills impressively high and steep, and the tunnels very long. The dangers of washouts and landslides had to be recognised, and special precautions taken along practically every yard of the route. For this reason, where ordinary fillings are pierced by culverts, there water-drives through solid rock are substituted. Some of them are 80 or 100 yards long, built like railway tunnels, and heavily concreted, with tremendous concrete approaches to guide the water away from the vulnerable base of the fillings.

Famous “Battle”

Over this particular section of the Coast line, between Wairoa and Gisborne, was fought the famous “battle of the routes.” the inland route by way of Tiniroto, which would have traversed easier country, was rejected in favour of the coast route, partly because the latter took the line through Waikokopu, a tiny port which has a big wharf and very little else. Comparatively few ships go there, and with the development of Napier’s deep-water harbour, there will probably be fewer still.

In the old coaching days the main road to Gisborne followed the shores of Hawke’s Bay from Wairoa along through Nuhaka to Waikokopu, then went up the Kopuawhara and climbed crazily among the hills until it rejoined the present line of the road on the summit of the well-known Wharerata Hill. Today of course, the main road turns north at Nuhaka, passes the Morere hot springs, and climbs first the Morere Hill, then the Tarewa, then Wharerata. Even to-day it is a road of countless curves and corners which has reduced many a service-car passenger to the abject misery of car-sickness. In the old days it was worse, but it could never hold a candle, in this respect, to the old coach road up the Kopuawhara valley.

The road up the Kopuawhara was virtually abandoned after the other was adopted as the main highway, and until 18 months ago was pretty well impassable. Then the railway engineers turn their attention to it, because it shortened the distance between Bartlett’s and the Kopuawhara by about 20 miles. They widened it and metalled it, and Public Works trucks and […] follow the “coach road” if I wanted to see the railway workings properly. From the coach road subsidiary roads go twisting and spiralling and diving among the spurs and gullies to give access to various camps and supply points, established in connection with the big tunnels and the intermediate formation work. The heaviest of this formation occurs at the top end of the Kopuawhara, between tragic No. 4 camp and the southern portal of the Tikiwhata tunnel, and in the Tikiwhata valley, where the railway line next sees the daylight.

A Mountain Gorge

We had been down in the deep Wharekakaho valley, where the Waikoura tunnel is being pierced, and had peered over the cliff at the main Tikiwhata camp, looking down on the coastal slopes where the line is to emerge from the coast tunnel, 500 feet above sea. Then we went back on the old coach road, heading for the Kopuawhara, and held our breath more than once in passing trucks on that narrow road where there was but an inch or two between our wheel tracks and disaster.

The upper end of the Kopuawhara is so narrow, and its sides are so precipitous, that the valley is indistinguishable until the descent into it is actually begun. It is closed in by a watershed of a height and steepness which gives it all the characteristics of a mountain gorge.

Down in the valley, after three or four miles of twisting and turning, we came to […]

Photo captions –

Clearing debris from a battered motor-car which was caught in the torrent.

The Kopuawhara Stream after the torrent had subsided. Confined to a narrow gorge the stream scoured out the banks on either side, washing away a large section of the roadway on the right.


Photo caption –


These two pictures tell the tragic story of the disaster which overtook the No. 4 railway construction camp at Kopuawhara, about 35 miles north of Wairoa, early last Saturday morning.
UPPER: The block of 47 workers’ homes before the coming of the raging wall of water which overwhelmed them.
LOWER: A view of the same place after the torrent had passed. The mountain stream on the left, swollen by fierce flood waters, jumped its banks and poured over the doomed camp. Men struggled for their lives in the darkness as their homes were swept away. Twenty-one perished. Scattered wreckage and desolation remained.

Photo captions –

Scene of tragic desolation after the disaster: a general view of the No. 4 railway construction camp at Kopuawhara taken early on Sunday morning. Debris and […]where formerly the camp for single men was located, on the right of the stream which engulfed the men’s homes. Compare with lower left picture

In tragic contrast with the picture above is this view of the same camp and surroundings before the flood. The ill-fated single men’s section of the camp is on the right of the Kopuawhara Stream.

Survivors of the tragedy. From left: Mr. Harold […] Cameron Jun., Mrs. Cameron, Joan Cameron and Mr. H. McCorquodale. Harold Cameron, […]..dragging a heavily-built man to safety.

All that remained of the stricken camp: a closer view of wreckage of some of the buildings after the flood had passed


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Surnames in these newspaper articles –
Auld, Barbarich, Barclay, Blair, Cameron, Castles, Chesley, Clark, Cronin, Davis, Doreen, Douglas, Dunn, Foster, Fountain, Fry, Galway, Gilberd, Halford, Hall, Hampden, Hoggard, Jobson, Johnston, Kelliher, Le Grove, Martinac, McCorquodale, McGivern, McLean, Nugent, Pender, Quinn, Rangi, Savage, Semple, Sloan, Smith, Stapp, Tracey, Trainor, Waaka, Wilson, Woods, Yeo

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Date published

23 February 1938


The Weekly News

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