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Another day at the beach

A personal memoir of Tangiwai, 50 years on.

Each Christmas Eve I feel it more strongly - a surge of love and gratitude for a man whose name I cannot remember. He saved the lives of our three children, and mine, even while totally unwittingly he opened the way for three other people to die in our stead.

Like most such stories, this one has a pretty humdrum, everyday kind of beginning, little things that added up ...

Broadcasting was a funny business, 50 years ago. The old New Zealand Broadcasting Service was rigidly controlled and tightly scripted, but there was one oddity, a shortwave station called Radio New Zealand, which supposedly presented our country to the world. It operated from a small Wellington studio on the Terrace. Nobody in New Zealand except a few radio hams ever listened to it, although it had a large following in the Pacific and northern hemisphere. Nobody seemed to know or care who was broadcasting - and nobody thought it odd that one person, who happened to be me, should be doing both weekly commentaries on this shortwave radio station.

They were chatty, conversational, broadcasts. They had to be, as they weren't scripted. Scripting would have taken more time than I could spare. In any case, Radio NZ's director, the always affable, always unflappable Ulric Williams, with much experience in show business, wanted his station to present "a fresh, informal, friendly New Zealand" sound to the world. In fact, these were the adjectives that listeners often used when we invited them to write to us.

Mailbox was my first session, 15 minutes reading from, commenting on and answering listeners' letters, always trying to make bricks from the straw that was all most listeners' letters represented, with the aim of somehow constructing an interesting programme. The trick was to find a subject, even a phrase, in a letter and use it as a text to hang a kind of mini-sermon on (that's what I mentally called them). Halfway through the broadcast, I could draw breath while a technician played a Maori song, which I'd then briefly talk about.

I began a weekly Mailbox about 1948. There was enough good reaction for us to try another weekly session of 10 minutes, with the riveting title of Men, Women and Things in New Zealand. Well, that's the kind of title we went for in those days, and of course it covered anything. I cut clippings from newspapers and magazines, dreamt up subjects while I pegged nappies on the line, and jotted ideas down on the backs of envelopes.

Every Thursday afternoon my lovely babysitter, Louisa Heinegg, would arrive. My stomach would begin clenching in anxiety as I thought of the red light coming on in the studio. I would buy a bag of peppermints and begin sucking them in the tram, and by the time I'd climbed up to the studio on the Terrace and indicated to Ulric what I thought I'd be talking about, and settled down with the mike and my clippings and scribbled-on envelopes and smiled a pepperminty smile at him and one of the two or three technicians who used to sit gazing through the glass at me, I was ready to go. Once the red light came on, my stomach unclenched and I think I usually enjoyed just talking. Central to all this were Ulric and the technicians. I had to make them want to listen to me, and if possible make them laugh. Their responses made it all possible. I guess I was playing to them.

On this day, early in November 1953, because somebody had helpfully mentioned Christmas in an otherwise bald report of our programmes logged and listened to, I was telling overseas listeners how New Zealand children would be celebrating Christmas. Our middle child, Jane, aged three, was really upset, I said. (My tiny audience on the other side of the studio glass looked concerned. Good. Listeners would be following this, too.) That was because, I explained, I'd have to wait around to get three weeks of recordings done in advance. That meant the only train bookings I'd been able to get for our summer holidays in Auckland were on Christmas Eve - and poor Jane was convinced that Father Christmas wouldn't know she was on the train with her stocking, and she would miss out.

But her sister Sarah, aged eight, had been emphatic that Father Christmas knows everything, and that all the children on the train that night - she and Jane and our baby Martin, who would sleep in an extra-large carrycot on the carriage floor - all of them would have stockings that Father Christmas would be filling. (All the children, I repeated, in pre-Christmas expansiveness. That was the New Zealand way. Father Christmas would be aboard the Auckland Limited. My tiny audience grinned with me. Lucky New Zealand children ...)

When I'd finished and we were sharing peppermints, the technician said casually, "I wouldn't mind coming in on my afternoon off and recording you - six sessions? We could manage it. Then you could try to get away on your holidays earlier." I was grateful, very. "Chocolates for you," I said.

I brought along chocolates and a bottle of something, probably sherry. It was a marathon effort early in December, but we made it, and celebrated. After all that, the best I could do was snap up three seats for the train on the afternoon and night of December 23, and exchange them for our bookings on Christmas Eve. At least it would mean another day at the beach for us all.

We were to stay in a magic Auckland house, right on the beach. Right on the beach could mean just that in those days. Rocks and sand came up to and around the front porch. It was the last house on the left in Minnehaha Ave in Takapuna, and even then we knew it couldn't and shouldn't be allowed to stay there. Now the area is millionaire territory, swept back clear of the beach. We and our hosts, Martyn and Peggy Finlay, who had recently bought the house, were ready to rejoice in every moment.

My husband, John Reece Cole, had been Martyn's campaign manager when he had first stood for and won North Shore for Labour in 1945. In Wellington, Martyn had stayed with us, and now we were to stay in his magic house in Takapuna's golden weather. John, who had to work on, was driving up with a friend on Christmas Day. Then we'd catch up with all the gossip.

We had a blissful Christmas Eve. Martyn drove right around the harbour to meet us at Auckland Railway Station in the morning, and to meet his godson for the first time. Jane's Christmas stocking was dealt with first, and hung at the end of her bed. We unpacked buckets and spades, and spent a day without boundaries between beach and house. Salt, sand, sun and water - buckets, books and drinks. Nobody could have had a lovelier day before Christmas.

That night we all slept for hours, even the baby. I padded out to the living-room with him quite early the next morning to give him his first feed. The girls with their now bulging stockings slept on. Later, I opened the unlocked front door and carried my smiling baby out where I held him as I sat on a rock, drinking in the sea and Rangitoto and the day ahead when we would all be a family again.

Then I heard something or someone behind us. It was Martyn, holding onto the door as he found words for what had happened. He had turned on the radio, quietly, but he had heard the news. In the night the train, our train, the one we had been booked on, somehow had fallen off a bridge. All the second-class carriages in the front - our carriage, of course - had gone down into the water. Almost everyone it seemed had drowned. It had happened at a place called Tangiwai.

All that day and the next and the next we listened to the news, whenever the little girls were out of earshot, although I found myself needing to hold them and hug them.

Everyone learnt the name of Tangiwai, and the word "lahar", a hellish eruption of mud and boulders hurtled out of the crater lake of Mt Ruapehu. It had carried everything before it, sweeping away much of the rail bridge over the small river. Carriages were piled up in the water and along the riverbanks. People were spilt out, some somehow swimming to a riverbank and helping others survive. Many were killed as the carriages fell. Others were caught inside or carried for miles down to where the lahar met the main Whangaehu River.

My young cousins, Reed and Gordon Kellick, who farmed at Mangamahu near Fordell, out of Wanganui, joined the band of volunteers who patrolled the Whangaehu, recovering what they could. Almost as hard to cope with as the bodies, they said, were all the Christmas toys. All those teddy bears and koalas, mud-soaked and legs torn off in the torrent, haunted them.

I knew how it would have been in those carriages. Every seat taken, fretful children soothed with an early Christmas toy, their stockings waiting for the morning light, everyone sleeping or dozing with the promise of families and fun to come. Then, just before half past 10, it happened. The engine and one carriage after another reached the gap in the middle of the bridge and lurched down into the swollen water. Only the first-class carriages became uncoupled, and came to rest still on the bridge.

One hundred and fifty-one - men, women and children - died.

As they were found, and identified, I used to read the columns of their names. Who were the people who counted themselves so lucky to get the last three seats, our seats, on Christmas Eve? When psychologists began to use the words "survivor guilt", I knew what they meant. As I hugged our children, I gave thanks.

Years passed. I lost touch with the Radio New Zealand people. I could see, and can still see, the face of that generous technician who gave up his afternoon off. But his name? I tried to track down old employment records, but the new Radio New Zealand in all its computerised efficiency has no trace of them.

Now it is 50 years since Tangiwai. Sometimes I think about what would never have happened if we hadn't been given another day at the beach. No grandchildren, to begin with. I am still trying to pay off the debt of gratitude I owe.