Monday, March 19, 2007

Memories of a Lahar.







Yesterday at 11 am. there was a Lahar ( or mudflow ) from the crater lake on Mt. Ruapehu in the central North Island of New Zealand. It was expected ( scientifically ) some time this month or next. This time there was no loss of life!


For me the news rekindled memories of the last time this happened.


For me Christmas Eve 1953 will always be remembered, as this was the time a lahar occurred on that same mountain unexpectedly at 10 pm at night and came roaring down the Whangaehu River taking out the Tangiwai Railway bridge just as the train from Wellington the Auckland was approaching. 153 people lost their lives! My little friend Glenis Benton and her 2 sisters and both parents were among those 153. Glenis had red curly hair and freckles all over her pretty face. We sat together at school and we played together as little girls. That's her on my right in the photo. )
I didn't know she had died till a couple of weeks later in January during the school holidays. Of course we had heard all about the tragedy but it took some time to know and trace all the folk who had been on that train. I found out the awful truth on what was otherwise a happy also memorable day. Queen Elizabeth 11 was visiting NZ at this time and we all got collected by school bus and taken to the race course at Marton Junction to walk to the nearby railway station to meet her. We were lined up for roll call and were given our commemorative medals on the blue ribbon with the Queen's head on one side and a flag to wave. ( still have mine ) Miss Bailey our dear teacher from the previous year had the horrid job of explaining to us kids that Glenis wouldn't be coming back as her whole family had died in the tragedy. I was devastated as she was a close friend. I probably didn't register the finality of that at the time....but she didn't come back to school that next year........ or ever again. It was my first experience of someone close to me dying. We were just 8 1/2 at the time.
Back then there was a pink cover weekly magazine called the Auckland Weekly News which we got and of course it had black and white photos of the disaster. Bad things weren't so freely discussed with kids back then and of course it wasn't on TV in our living rooms.
The next summer when our family went on summer holiday we stopped the car where the new railway bridge had been built. I stared at the river and wondered how Glenis could have drowned in that trickle of water. We could swim! Why didn't she swim? I did so hope that Glenis had been asleep in the train. It was then I learnt what a lahar was and what force it had unleashed on the bridge.
I have a book with many diagrams and photos. There is also a website and memorial where all the names are recorded.( Google search Tangiwai disaster and there is lots to see and read )
Years later when my elder son was at school I met his teacher's wife. She had brown curly hair and lots of freckles. I discovered her maiden name had been Benton. She was Glenis's first cousin. As she was younger than Glenis she hadn't known her so I was able to show her photos and tell her what I remembered of her cousin and my little friend. Glenis Benton. I will never forget you Glenis. You guessed it; even after all this time I am sitting at the computer with tears rolling down my face.

10 comments:

Shirley Goodwin said...

That's the thing with New Zealand, isn't it Ali? It's such a small place that tragedy touches us all. How sad for you to come into contact with death at that age - I was about 17 before a schoolmate was killed. Even that was hard to comprehend - my brother had been tlaking to him a couple of hours earlier. If I understood all about life and death, I'd share it with you but unfortunately, I don't.

MargaretR said...

How very sad Ali. I heard about this last incident on the news here, but I don't remember the first time. That was a busy year for me as I was doing my O levels at 15 years old. None of my friends died that young, but I can imagine how traumatic it was for you as a child.
Friends of mine die quite often these days I'm afraid.

Diana said...

How very, very sad. It's so hard to lose anyone, but with children it seems so unfair. Thank goodness no one lost his life this time.

KCQuilter said...

Such a touching story, Ali. I had never heard of a lahar. Sounds so horrendous. And I know exactly how you feel about losing a dear friend. We never get over it, no matter how many years go by. Take care.

meggie said...

I remember it so clearly Ali. We went to Rotorua to see the Queen, aware that the Maori people regarded her as 'bad luck'. I dont ever remember it being called a 'lahar' back then. My worst death experience at a young age was a friend's mother. It has always haunted me. She died of cancer, & held a party for her daughter's birthday, just before she died. She looked so ill, & I couldnt stop thinking about her.

Molly said...

What a story....I had never heard of a lahar either. So sad to learn about death through the death of a good friend, especially so young.

Helen said...

Ali, this is a very moving post. I wasn't even a 'twinkle in my father's eye' (as the saying used to go) in 1953. But we grew up learning about it. I can clearly remember waking up one dark morning to hear the radio intoning the bad news of the Wahine disaster. These moments are with us forever. What a great thing you have photos of your friend and were able to show them to her cousin.

Elaine Adair said...

A sad story, but you told it well. You were so young to have lost a friend - I am rereading it, with tears in my eye. A hard experience for all.

Deb H said...

Well you've made me cry too. I lost a close friend when I was 9. He suddenly dropped dead. Later after a 2 day Autopsy (which horrified my 9 year old mind) they found he had a tumor that just swelled & cut off his airway. I was afraid to sleep without a night light for years afterward.
He used to visit me in dreams, & grew up with me in the dreams. I always enjoyed it when he came. I haven't dreamed of him in a long time now though.

Suzi-k said...

a sad story, but good that, after all these years, she has a loyal friend who remembers her fondly! And so great you were able to share with her cousin. Although shocking, it is good that the whole family went together, imagine carrying on life as the only survivor?