Flashback: Tunnel to death

20:46, Jun 26 2014
Sid Barlow
Died on duty: Sid Barlow, left, would posthumously be among a handful of people to get a Queen’s commendation for bravery.

It has been 50 years since Ray Edwards pulled his friend's body from deep below Wellington, but it still gives him nightmares.

On June 14, 1964 - 50 years ago today - a group of boys clambered into a tunnel linking the Kaitoke reservoir with Karori's.

They were doing what young boys do, adventuring, when they entered the stretch of the tunnel that runs between Maldive St and Madras St in Khandallah.

Alan Wilson
Family link: Paramedic Alan Wilson at the tunnel where his great uncle Sid Barlow, also a paramedic, died from carbon monoxide trying to rescue two boys in 1964.

The adventure would turn deadly. Two of them, Lance Voss, 13, and Wayne Niven, 14, would die, as would the first Wellington Free Ambulance officer to enter the tunnel that day, Sid Barlow.

What no-one then knew was that a nearby coal gas pipe was leaking carbon monoxide into the water tunnel. The gas was odourless, colourless, and deadly.

Between 5 and 6pm that night, Warren Voss was asked by his mother to find his brother.


Ray Edwards
Unforgettable horror: Ray Edwards says the scene at the tunnel entrance was total chaos. ‘‘I get flashbacks occasionally.’’

He went to the tunnel entrance and heard cries. "He went into the tunnel but could not see anything," The Dominion reported.

Others tried and police were soon at the scene. A police officer went in and found one boy, about 200 metres in. "Constable Painter staggered and collapsed as he was helped to fresh air."

Other helpers collapsed inside the tunnel.

A painter and decorator, AC Rhode, would tell The Dominion he was visiting friends in Madras St. He recalled what happened when he and a friend were taken back to the tunnel.

"The young fellow went in and we could hear him yelling or crying. He asked us, would we come in the tunnel. I said there was nothing we could do.

"He went in and said he was underneath them. That made me think there was another entrance. It was then we called the police.

"Everybody was confused. It was hard to say what was happening. I was there when they brought one of the boys out and then I lost track of what was happening."

BARLOW'S co-worker, Ray Edwards, 88, remembers the day well.

He had gone home from the Wellington Free base in Cable St to Kilbirnie for dinner.

When he returned to the station he was sent straight to Khandallah, where Barlow was already deep inside the tunnel trying to find the boys.

The scene was "total chaos" when he arrived.

"There were fire service personnel in the tunnel being overcome by carbon monoxide, which we were totally unaware of."

Edwards grabbed a resuscitator "in the belief if something was wrong I could use the oxygen side . . . to keep myself alive".

In the tunnel he came across three firefighters struggling. One was already unconscious.

"I managed to get my oxygen into him and get him on his feet.

"He said, ‘there's another man in the tunnel'. That man could only be Sid Barlow, so I kept going in."

About 200m into the cramped tunnel he came across his friend and co-worker, who was long since dead.

"I have had nightmares all my life about that particular incident. I get flashbacks occasionally."

A firefighter arrived as he was dragging his friend's body out.

"Between the pair of us we managed to keep going with Sid and get him out of the tunnel."

Unknown to them, they were both suffering the effects of the carbon monoxide.

Others came to help and eventually, hours after the first call to emergency services, they dragged Barlow's body from the dark tunnel into the night outside.

"It was a horrible, horrible thing," says Edwards, who now lives in Strathmore.

Alan Wilson was 4 when Barlow, his great uncle, died.

Family memories are part of the reason he joined Wellington Free Ambulance 27 years ago. These days he is an intensive care paramedic, still with Wellington Free.

He has researched that day in June, 1964.

Barlow, who would posthumously join a handful of people to receive a Queen's commendation for bravery, was the first ambulance officer into the tunnel, which barely had room to stand inside.

Of the fire, ambulance, police, and members of the public, Barlow and the two children were, remarkably, the only ones to die.

"He was just one of the ones who didn't get out unfortunately."

The Dominion Post