Walk honours rail's flood victims

By Lawrence Gullery

The closure of the Napier to Gisborne rail line has featured prominently in headlines recently but it is the track's construction 84 years ago which was the focus of a special commemoration event yesterday.

The Gisborne Canoe and Tramping Club organised a walk to the Kopuawhara Monument, Waiau Stream via the Wharerata track, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Kopuawhara Flood which killed 22 people on February 19, 1938, during the railway construction period.

Of those who perished, there were 21 men and one woman who drowned when a sudden cloud burst sent a wall of water surging through a public works camp at Kopuawhara, near Mahia. The weather event was New Zealand's deadliest 20th-century flood, according to New Zealand History Online.

The no.4 camp was located on the banks of the Kopuawhara Stream and was set up for workers building the Wairoa to Gisborne railway. Houses for married men were on higher ground with a cookhouse and huts for 47 single men closer to the riverbank.

While the stream was in flood due to heavy rain, the level had been higher previously and there was no sense of danger. No one was prepared for the 5m wall of water which hit the camp sometime after 3am.

One worker noticed the water breached the banks of the stream and began pouring across the camp site. He tried to raise the alarm, running from hut to hut before being swept away.

Men struggled in water up to their necks. Some took refuge on the roofs of their huts but the torrent collapsed most of these structures.

The tramping club's president Gillian Ward said the club held a service at the monument at 11.30am with speeches from Gisborne Mayor Meng Foon and several others who had family connections with the disaster or the railway construction years.

The site of the single men's no.4 camp that was devastated by the flood is close to the boundary of Gisborne and Wairoa districts but is actually just in the Wairoa side.

Those who took part in the event walked to the Kopuawhara Monument from the end of Railway Rd, which leads from Paritu-Mahanga Rd, off State highway 2 down to the railway line.

KiwiRail gave permission for walkers to use the railway line on the 3km hike to the monument and then on the old Wharerata Walkway beside Waiau Stream.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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