Seeking memories of fatal crash

CHARLOTTE SQUIRE
Last updated 13:00 28/02/2014
Mapua Ferry.
COME TOGETHER?: Former Golden Bay High School student Bruce Schwartfeger was injured in the 1975 school bus crash tragedy at Kikiwa, near St Arnaud.
Mapua Ferry.
OVER THE EDGE: The crumpled wreckage of the school bus lies at the bottom of the hillside at Kikiwa, near St Arnaud.

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Thirty-nine years ago today, Golden Bay High School student Bruce Schwartfeger was flung out of a school bus and knocked unconscious as the vehicle rolled down a 100-metre bank at Kikiwa, near Lake Rotoiti.

Today, Mr Schwartfeger hardly remembers the crash on February 28, 1975, which injured 25 students and took the life of one schoolmate, but he'd like to.

He's organising a 40th anniversary reunion at Lake Rotoiti this time next year for anyone involved in the accident.

"I have vague memories of walking around at the top on the road, and then I remember being picked up from Nelson Hospital," he said. "Parents will quite possibly remember a whole lot more than the kids do."

He said the accident affected him in many ways for years afterwards. "I can remember that I would have a sensation of rolling over when I closed my eyes in bed at night. I had that for years afterward, and I found it difficult to get on a bus again."

Nearly all the 26 children on board the bus were thrown through the windows when it tumbled down the hillside.

A Nelson Evening Mail article written on the day of the accident said four ambulances rushed to the scene. Two helicopters were also called in with medical staff and to fly out the badly injured.

"It is very bad," said a distressed Mrs Lochhead, who lived at a nearby homestead and was involved, with her family, in the rescue operation.

Susan Margaret Sharland, 16, died in the accident. Trudy Reilly was seriously hurt, with spinal injuries. Kerri Page suffered head injuries, and Louise Somerville suffered "extensive blood loss".

The bus driver, Takaka teacher Anthony Burnett, said he had "no conception there was any danger" before "suddenly, we were just going over and over down the hill". The single-lane dirt road had been undergoing road works at the time.

Mr Schwartfeger said a 2012 Golden Bay High School reunion reminded him of the accident and made him wonder what had become of the students and families involved. He was also interested in revisiting the crash scene.

"Sometimes you just need to go back. It brings back all sorts of memories and feelings, so it's good to just stand there and look at it.

"I'm an inquisitive sort of person. I thought, ‘Well, maybe I can find these other people and we can have a reunion'.

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"I don't have any great aspirations about whether it's going to happen, or what I'm going to do. I'm just kicking it along like a ball, seeing where it goes, seeing if anybody else is interested. Obviously, some people don't want to go there."

Susan Sharland's mother Margaret, of Takaka, said she thought the reunion was a good idea.

"I'm quite happy about it. I don't know how my girls feel, but I guess I'm Mum. I think it's a good idea, really, because some of [the survivors] are still suffering, and I think it'll be good for them to get together and talk it through."

Mrs Sharland said her late daughter was "a character and a half" with a "wicked" sense of humour.

"She'd become not a daughter, but a good friend.

"We could do the silliest things together."

"If you stepped on her toes, you knew about it," said Susan's sister Jo Tasker.

Mr Schwartfeger said he had received a lot of positive feedback about the idea of a reunion.

He has set up a facebook page as a contact and information point - School Bus Tragedy at Kikiwa 1975.

- Nelson

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