Bravery awards: School's guiding light in a time of tragedy

By Elizabeth Binning

Murray Burton, principal of Elim College. Photograph / Paul Estcourt
Murray Burton, principal of Elim College. Photograph / Paul Estcourt

When Elim Christian College principal Murray Burton is formally invested as a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, the last thing on his mind will be the admirable way he handled the deaths of six students and a teacher in a canyoning tragedy.

Instead, he will be thinking about the victims and about their families, who are still grieving nearly three years after that fateful trip to the Mangatepopo Gorge.

"All the way through I have maintained that my role has simply been to look after these seven families who lost children nearly three years ago, and to support them and to guide them and steer the school through what was a huge time of grief," a humble Mr Burton said.

"I only accepted [the honour] on the basis that hopefully it would remind New Zealanders that these families have got a long journey ahead of them and that I really wanted to get some focus back to them."

Mr Burton, who has won numerous awards for his leadership following the tragedy, has been appointed a member of the order for his services to the community.

He will receive his MNZM badge at an official ceremony later this year.

Elim teacher Tony McClean (named with Austin Hemmings as the Herald's New Zealanders of the Year in 2008) and student Anthony Mulder are being posthumously awarded New Zealand Bravery Stars for the way they sacrificed their own lives at Mangatepopo while trying to help save the lives of two other students.

The citation for Mr Burton describes him as the man who "guided the college through the aftermath of the tragic deaths" in a way that was "an example to all".

"He displayed an openness and forgiveness that set a precedent by positively influencing the way others dealt with the tragedy and thus helped to eliminate many of the negative outcomes from the incident."

Mr Burton said the tragedy and its aftermath were the hardest things he had ever had to deal with in his career. "I quickly came to terms with the fact that this was something I needed to face with empathy for those who are deeply affected.

"This wasn't something they were going to get over very easily ... There is no such thing as moving on. You learn to live with loss, you never get over loss."

Mr Burton said he was "absolutely thrilled" that Tony McClean and Anthony Mulder had received bravery awards for the roles they played.

An enduring memory from that time was of Mr McClean's father, John, stopping at the Taumarunui police station to see his son's body after visiting the gorge.

"He wanted to make sure that Tony hadn't given up without a fight because he was absolutely convinced that Tony would fight until the very end to save who he could save, and himself as well. That was an enduring and poignant father-son thing but also acknowledged that these guys were heroes. That's a really great thing that's vivid in my memory - Tony wouldn't have given up without a fight and neither would Anthony."

According to their citations, both Tony McClean and Anthony Mulder were competent swimmers and would have stood a much better chance of surviving had they tried to swim on their own. Instead, they attached themselves to other students who were not as confident in the hope of getting them to safety. Neither made it.

Miriam Mulder, Anthony's mother, said she and her family were "extremely proud and pleased" that his bravery was being acknowledged.

Mr McClean's mother, Jeanette, said she and her husband were also very proud. "We wish, of course, he was here to get it himself but we are very honoured to be able to collect it on his behalf."f."

- NZ Herald

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