Tragedy brought out the best in Wairarapa

By Heather McCracken

When I first heard the news, it sounded so unlikely I thought I must have heard wrong.

It was a Saturday a year ago, and I received an early morning phone call from Times-Age chief reporter Don Farmer.

He said a hot-air balloon had gone down in Clareville. It was thought 11 people had been killed.

That couldn't be right, I thought. He must have meant 11 people on board. It just didn't seem possible.

It was January 7, a hot, bright day, hardly any wind. Wairarapa was still in sleepy, holiday mode - the stories in the paper the week before had been about the late berry crop, an archery tournament, boy racers.

No one was ready to wake up on Saturday to news of 11 deaths, just down the road in tiny Clareville.

I wrote in this column a year ago, in the immediate aftermath of that frantic, horrific weekend, that Wairarapa was too small for a tragedy this big.

Looking back now, I think we can be proud of how a small community rose to meet such a massive challenge.

The emergency services, the victim support volunteers, the neighbours, those who took in and sheltered the shocked family members, and those who just turned up with baking or with flowers, all played their part.

I think of Leanne and Clayton Brown, who have dedicated a part of their Somerset Rd property to be a memorial to the two youngest victims, Alexis Still and Chrisjan Jordaan.

To me, they have epitomised the way Wairarapa people reached out to all involved in the tragedy.

So too does Carterton fire chief Wayne Robinson, who recalled the way emergency services worked together at the scene in "complete unity".

Not big in numbers, perhaps, but certainly in heart.


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