8 THE WEEKLY NEWS February 23, 1938
HELPLESS EYEWITNESSES WATCH MEN GO TO DEATH
Man who Rode a Log and Escaped from Death
GRAPHIC STORY OF THE DISASTER
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
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, 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 […]
TWO BRAVE MEN
SEARCH FOR WOMAN
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”
ELEVEN LOST TOGETHER
Swept away in “Jumble of Bodies”
TRAGIC ERROR OF JUDGEMENT
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.
TRAIL OF WRECKAGE
SEARCH FOR POSSESSIONS
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.
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.
ELDERLY MAN AND BOY
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.