Doco revisits Brynderwyn Hills bus tragedy

By Mike Dinsdale

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Veteran television reporter and presenter Mark Sainsbury studies the February 7 1963 Northern Advocate front page with sound technician Andy Thomas and cameraman Scott Behrnes. Photo / John Stone
Veteran television reporter and presenter Mark Sainsbury studies the February 7 1963 Northern Advocate front page with sound technician Andy Thomas and cameraman Scott Behrnes. Photo / John Stone

A documentary about a 50-year-old tragedy that saw 15 people die in a bus crash on the Brynderwyn Hills has rekindled plenty of memories of the disaster, with producers of the show overwhelmed by the feedback to their work.

The bus crash, on the Brynderwyn Hills on February 7, 1963, involved people on their way home from a visit to Northland, where the Queen had been in attendance at Waitangi Day celebrations and is still New Zealand's worst road accident.

Producers of TVNZ's Descent from Disaster have been in Whangarei filming for a programme on the tragedy, including in the Northern Advocate's archive room where copies of the newspaper from the event are stored.

When the Advocate first publicised details of the documentary, the paper was inundated with people who recalled the event or had a relative involved and all details were passed on to the producers.

The show won't be on air until next year, but presenter Mark Sainsbury said he had been amazed at the response from the public to the filming.

Mr Sainsbury, a veteran television journalist and presenter - and one time bus driver - said he had not been aware of the tragedy until he became involved in the programme and felt it was a compelling story to tell.

"It was an awful tragedy, but it seems very few, outside of Northland, know much about it. It was in the days before the internet and 24/7 television and if it had happened today with 15 people dying there would be round the clock coverage of such a major accident," Mr Sainsbury said. "It was interesting to go through all the back papers and look at the coverage of the time. It was a real 'stop the press' moment for [then Advocate cub reporter] Kevin Ball."

February 7, 1963 saw New Zealand's worst bus accident, when 15 people were killed (and 20 injured) after the bus carrying them back to Port Waikato, from Waitangi, crashed due to brake failure on its descent down the Brynderwyn Hills. Archives held at the Northern Advocate are a vital link for the programme and are a welcomed sight by writer/director Bryn Evans, who has spent the past few months researching the story and archive through microfilm.

"We usually cannot find originals and have to replicate these items for the television show," said Mr Evans.

"But this is an amazing link, which we can utilise in the production. To have the original newspaper saved, it's outstanding."

This is not the only link connecting the Northern Advocate to this upcoming production. Back in 1963, a young reporter, Kevin Ball was left behind at the paper to "man the front desk", while other senior reporters, went to cover Queen Elizabeth's visit at Waitangi. And the old morgue, where many of the bodies were taken, was on the site where the current Northern Advocate building is. Mr Sainsbury said the filming had turned up lots of coincidences and he was sure the show would be a good watch for those wanting to know more about the bus crash.

- Northern Advocate

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