Risked life in Bola to save others

Obituary: Alan Devitt

Obituary: Alan Devitt

AFTERMATH: The desolation of Mangatuna flats in the wake of Cyclone Bola in 1988. Bus company owner Alan Devitt (see the following photo in this gallery) and his son Colin drove through rapidly rising waters at the height of the storm, to answer a call for help from a Poverty Bay Power Board truck which had been helping evacuate people from their homes. File picture
Alan Devitt.

The East Coast has lost one of its personalities and Cyclone Bola heroes in Alan Devitt, who has died in Whakatane at the age of 83.

Mr Devitt was known for his Ranui Buses business, which at one stage had 150 vehicles operating on the Coast, Gisborne and Opotiki.

He later operated a taxi business in Whakatane with his son Colin, who was also involved in the bus company.

The two men put their own lives at risk saving others during Cyclone Bola in 1988.

They were driving to Tolaga Bay to pick up a Ranui bus that had been caught in a slip shortly before the worst of the cyclone hit.

Water levels had started to rise but despite the increasingly bad weather, the Uawa River had not yet burst its banks, said Colin Devitt.

“We actually picked up a few people already from where their cars had been caught in slips.”

On their way, they crossed paths with a Poverty Bay Power Board truck that was attempting to evacuate people from their homes.

The further they travelled, the worse the weather became.

“It was just continuous rain. When the water came down you could see it rising by the foot,” he said.

The Devitts eventually made it to the Tolaga Bay fire station when a call for help from the power board truck came in.

It had been carrying two power board workers, another man, and a pregnant woman, when it became stranded at Mangatuna.

It was towing a car with four people in it, and both vehicles were becoming submerged.

The Devitts’ diesel TK Bedford four-wheel-drive bus was the only vehicle able to access the road, which had become a turbulent ocean in the time they were at the fire station.

“We went down the road and into the water . . . it had become so dark by then. We were so lucky there were power poles there,” said Colin Devitt.

“We could see the flickering of light on the metal strips on the power poles . . . it was the only way we could see where we were going.”

Colin Devitt drove for nearly a kilometre in the water in the ex-forestry gang bus “very similar to an army Unimog” to reach the power board truck.

“I manoeuvred beside the vehicle but I had to keep moving backwards and forwards because we had such a strong current trying to move us away.

“At that stage the water had come up to the dash and all the buzzers and lights on it were cutting off. I was actually sitting in it and to change gear I had to reach through the water.”

The motor, as was much of the vehicle, was completely submerged.

“I was driving knowing that I had to keep the motor going and I didn’t dare let it drop down below revs because I knew if it stopped, or cut out, I would not get it going again and we would all have had it.”

Alan Devitt began transferring the pregnant woman and others into the bus when one of the power board workers told him the people in the car had died.

The car was no longer visible under the water.

In an effort to rescue people from homes and schools, the power board workers had evacuated three elderly folk and a young boy aged about 7 from their Mangatuna home.

They had tied the car to the truck and begun to tow it when the water became too much, killing the truck engine and sweeping the car to the side of the road and into a ditch.

“When it was in the ditch it was sort of bobbing up and down for a while,” said Colin Devitt.

“They were very distressed that they could not save them.”

“The young boy managed to get out through a window and went under water and just popped up in front of the power board bloke, who grabbed him by his hair and pulled him in.”

Cyclone Bola claimed the lives of Rutu (Ruth) Maurirere, Nancy Carroll and Harry Sutherland.

As Colin Devitt drove back to Tolaga Bay the water had risen to the level of the windscreen wipers on the bus.

“It was very frightening at the time. I would not want to go through it again,” he said.

Colin Devitt said he was disappointed he could not return to the Coast to attend the 30th anniversary of Cyclone Bola last year.

His father was born in Auckland and served as a policeman for a short time before farming 100 cows in Northland.

He moved to Tokomaru Bay where he bought a bus from Bruce Chaffey.

The company expanded quickly and moved to Tolaga Bay where it bought a former kiwifruit cool store, which served as a workshop.

Colin Devitt said Ranui Buses was the first company to operate a Japanese bus on passenger services.

But the men had to fight hard to overcome government bureaucracy which had issues with a bus operator moving away from British vehicles.

British buses were no match for the Japanese vehicle for mechanical reliability and fuel efficiency.

The company fought long and hard, aided by the fact that Alan Devitt was “a stubborn bugger’’ according to his son.

Further frustration with bureaucracy resulted in Ranui Buses being sold and the move to taxis in Whakatane.

Colin later took over the taxi business with his father, helping out for about four years.

Alan Devitt had battled ill health for the past two years and was with his family when he died in Whakatane Hospital.

His son described him as hard-working and “a real ladies’ man’’.

Mr Devitt was married three times and was a loved husband, grandfather, great-grandfather, extended family member and friend to many.

The East Coast has lost one of its personalities and Cyclone Bola heroes in Alan Devitt, who has died in Whakatane at the age of 83.

Mr Devitt was known for his Ranui Buses business, which at one stage had 150 vehicles operating on the Coast, Gisborne and Opotiki.

He later operated a taxi business in Whakatane with his son Colin, who was also involved in the bus company.

The two men put their own lives at risk saving others during Cyclone Bola in 1988.

They were driving to Tolaga Bay to pick up a Ranui bus that had been caught in a slip shortly before the worst of the cyclone hit.

Water levels had started to rise but despite the increasingly bad weather, the Uawa River had not yet burst its banks, said Colin Devitt.

“We actually picked up a few people already from where their cars had been caught in slips.”

On their way, they crossed paths with a Poverty Bay Power Board truck that was attempting to evacuate people from their homes.

The further they travelled, the worse the weather became.

“It was just continuous rain. When the water came down you could see it rising by the foot,” he said.

The Devitts eventually made it to the Tolaga Bay fire station when a call for help from the power board truck came in.

It had been carrying two power board workers, another man, and a pregnant woman, when it became stranded at Mangatuna.

It was towing a car with four people in it, and both vehicles were becoming submerged.

The Devitts’ diesel TK Bedford four-wheel-drive bus was the only vehicle able to access the road, which had become a turbulent ocean in the time they were at the fire station.

“We went down the road and into the water . . . it had become so dark by then. We were so lucky there were power poles there,” said Colin Devitt.

“We could see the flickering of light on the metal strips on the power poles . . . it was the only way we could see where we were going.”

Colin Devitt drove for nearly a kilometre in the water in the ex-forestry gang bus “very similar to an army Unimog” to reach the power board truck.

“I manoeuvred beside the vehicle but I had to keep moving backwards and forwards because we had such a strong current trying to move us away.

“At that stage the water had come up to the dash and all the buzzers and lights on it were cutting off. I was actually sitting in it and to change gear I had to reach through the water.”

The motor, as was much of the vehicle, was completely submerged.

“I was driving knowing that I had to keep the motor going and I didn’t dare let it drop down below revs because I knew if it stopped, or cut out, I would not get it going again and we would all have had it.”

Alan Devitt began transferring the pregnant woman and others into the bus when one of the power board workers told him the people in the car had died.

The car was no longer visible under the water.

In an effort to rescue people from homes and schools, the power board workers had evacuated three elderly folk and a young boy aged about 7 from their Mangatuna home.

They had tied the car to the truck and begun to tow it when the water became too much, killing the truck engine and sweeping the car to the side of the road and into a ditch.

“When it was in the ditch it was sort of bobbing up and down for a while,” said Colin Devitt.

“They were very distressed that they could not save them.”

“The young boy managed to get out through a window and went under water and just popped up in front of the power board bloke, who grabbed him by his hair and pulled him in.”

Cyclone Bola claimed the lives of Rutu (Ruth) Maurirere, Nancy Carroll and Harry Sutherland.

As Colin Devitt drove back to Tolaga Bay the water had risen to the level of the windscreen wipers on the bus.

“It was very frightening at the time. I would not want to go through it again,” he said.

Colin Devitt said he was disappointed he could not return to the Coast to attend the 30th anniversary of Cyclone Bola last year.

His father was born in Auckland and served as a policeman for a short time before farming 100 cows in Northland.

He moved to Tokomaru Bay where he bought a bus from Bruce Chaffey.

The company expanded quickly and moved to Tolaga Bay where it bought a former kiwifruit cool store, which served as a workshop.

Colin Devitt said Ranui Buses was the first company to operate a Japanese bus on passenger services.

But the men had to fight hard to overcome government bureaucracy which had issues with a bus operator moving away from British vehicles.

British buses were no match for the Japanese vehicle for mechanical reliability and fuel efficiency.

The company fought long and hard, aided by the fact that Alan Devitt was “a stubborn bugger’’ according to his son.

Further frustration with bureaucracy resulted in Ranui Buses being sold and the move to taxis in Whakatane.

Colin later took over the taxi business with his father, helping out for about four years.

Alan Devitt had battled ill health for the past two years and was with his family when he died in Whakatane Hospital.

His son described him as hard-working and “a real ladies’ man’’.

Mr Devitt was married three times and was a loved husband, grandfather, great-grandfather, extended family member and friend to many.

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