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Kopuawhara tragedy

Book to be launched on Wednesday

Book to be launched on Wednesday

TRAGEDY AND HEROISM: Gisborne woman Gillian Ward and her book Tragedy and Heroism at Kopuawhara, the story of the 1938 disaster that took 22 lives within minutes during construction of the Napier to Gisborne railway. Picture by Barry Foster
AFTER THE FLOOD: The remainder of the workers’ camp after the flood ripped through it, killing 21 people. The launch of the book is on Wednesday at 5.30pm at Muirs Bookshop, not Tuesday as diarised in The Gisborne Herald’s Weekender What’s On page. Picture supplied

Names chiselled in stone on a monument in the Whareratas are all that remain of the 22 lives lost in minutes one day in the 1930s but for Gillian Ward those people came to life as she wrote a book about the tragedy.

Ms Ward on Wednesday launches Tragedy and Heroism at Kopuawhara — the story of New Zealand’s worst public works disaster.

The disaster occurred during construction of the Napier to Gisborne railway through Kopuawhara Valley, north of Mahia in 1938. A flash flood on February 19 killed 20 men and one woman when a wall of water surged through the single men’s quarters of the workers’ camp. Another man drowned in a railway camp by Maraetaha Stream on the Gisborne side of the Wharerata hills.

“I kind of got to know these people through researching their family stories,” says Ms Ward. “The book is more about the people involved.”

Newspapers of the time, such as The Poverty Bay Herald, are full of detail, says Ms Ward. She suggests the sense of immediacy created by the writing of the time was a means of compensating for limited photographic technology.

“The newspaper stories are so detailed, so descriptive. They are very different from newspaper reporting now in which a picture can tell a thousand words.”

Ms Ward is a member of the Gisborne Canoe and Tramping Club who often walk in the Wharerata hills.

“Some of the interest has been in the railway line. We have always admired the engineering and the history.”

Club patron the late Bob Scott had a personal interest in the Kopuawhara monument that was built across the stream from the camp site four years after the sleeping workers lost their lives in the fatal deluge.

Mr Scott’s father plastered the memorial. When Ms Ward became club president she “inherited” the scrapbook Mr Scott compiled partly because the club had hosted the 25th, 50th, 75th and 80th commemorations for the 1938 tragedy.

Historic Places Tairawhiti hosted a commemoration of the 80th anniversary in 2018.

“Whenever we’ve held these commemorations people come from all over New Zealand and a few from around the world.”

One woman, whose uncle worked on the line and died in the flood, came to Gisborne from Ireland for the 1988 commemoration.

“This disaster affected a lot of people. In 1938 about 900 people were involved in building that section of railway line. This was a major public work. Our region had to campaign strongly to get the railway line to Gisborne.”

Construction of the railway line was a huge expense, with challenging engineering done in difficult country, says Ms Ward.

“In my book, I’m trying to explain what it was like working and living in the railway construction camps, what was involved in the work and what their lives were like, the loss of 22 people and the impact that had on their families.”

Some workers came to the East Coast backwater from Europe and for reasons of their own changed their names. One man on the run from the law abandoned his wife and baby in England. When Ms Ward contacted his family she found they did not want to know anything about him.

The government paid compensation to families who lost people to the flood but the money had to be collected in New Zealand.

Such bureaucracy meant the struggling family of a young Croatian man who died in the flood had to relinquish any compensation because they could not raise the funds to sail here.

First and second-hand memories of the fatal flood and its impact are becoming fewer as people connected with the disaster pass away, says Ms Ward in the book’s blurb.

“It seems an appropriate time to record as many as possible of these memories.”

  • The launch of Tragedy and Heroism at Kopuawhara by Gillian Ward will be held at Muirs Bookshop on Wednesday at 5.30pm.

Names chiselled in stone on a monument in the Whareratas are all that remain of the 22 lives lost in minutes one day in the 1930s but for Gillian Ward those people came to life as she wrote a book about the tragedy.

Ms Ward on Wednesday launches Tragedy and Heroism at Kopuawhara — the story of New Zealand’s worst public works disaster.

The disaster occurred during construction of the Napier to Gisborne railway through Kopuawhara Valley, north of Mahia in 1938. A flash flood on February 19 killed 20 men and one woman when a wall of water surged through the single men’s quarters of the workers’ camp. Another man drowned in a railway camp by Maraetaha Stream on the Gisborne side of the Wharerata hills.

“I kind of got to know these people through researching their family stories,” says Ms Ward. “The book is more about the people involved.”

Newspapers of the time, such as The Poverty Bay Herald, are full of detail, says Ms Ward. She suggests the sense of immediacy created by the writing of the time was a means of compensating for limited photographic technology.

“The newspaper stories are so detailed, so descriptive. They are very different from newspaper reporting now in which a picture can tell a thousand words.”

Ms Ward is a member of the Gisborne Canoe and Tramping Club who often walk in the Wharerata hills.

“Some of the interest has been in the railway line. We have always admired the engineering and the history.”

Club patron the late Bob Scott had a personal interest in the Kopuawhara monument that was built across the stream from the camp site four years after the sleeping workers lost their lives in the fatal deluge.

Mr Scott’s father plastered the memorial. When Ms Ward became club president she “inherited” the scrapbook Mr Scott compiled partly because the club had hosted the 25th, 50th, 75th and 80th commemorations for the 1938 tragedy.

Historic Places Tairawhiti hosted a commemoration of the 80th anniversary in 2018.

“Whenever we’ve held these commemorations people come from all over New Zealand and a few from around the world.”

One woman, whose uncle worked on the line and died in the flood, came to Gisborne from Ireland for the 1988 commemoration.

“This disaster affected a lot of people. In 1938 about 900 people were involved in building that section of railway line. This was a major public work. Our region had to campaign strongly to get the railway line to Gisborne.”

Construction of the railway line was a huge expense, with challenging engineering done in difficult country, says Ms Ward.

“In my book, I’m trying to explain what it was like working and living in the railway construction camps, what was involved in the work and what their lives were like, the loss of 22 people and the impact that had on their families.”

Some workers came to the East Coast backwater from Europe and for reasons of their own changed their names. One man on the run from the law abandoned his wife and baby in England. When Ms Ward contacted his family she found they did not want to know anything about him.

The government paid compensation to families who lost people to the flood but the money had to be collected in New Zealand.

Such bureaucracy meant the struggling family of a young Croatian man who died in the flood had to relinquish any compensation because they could not raise the funds to sail here.

First and second-hand memories of the fatal flood and its impact are becoming fewer as people connected with the disaster pass away, says Ms Ward in the book’s blurb.

“It seems an appropriate time to record as many as possible of these memories.”

  • The launch of Tragedy and Heroism at Kopuawhara by Gillian Ward will be held at Muirs Bookshop on Wednesday at 5.30pm.
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Kopuawhara Kid's Kid - 6 days ago
Fantastic, I'm thrilled to see your book launch. Well done. Lest we forget these heroic men and woman.

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