Blood on the tracks

06:01, May 27 2009
Elizabeth Coleman.

Elizabeth Coleman has drawn together voices from the wreckage metal, wooden, social and emotional of the hideous Hyde rail disaster. Michael Fallow reports.

At the time it really wasn't much of a story. Dramatic as all hell: 21 southerners dead and 47 injured from a derailed Cromwell-Dunedin express but this was 1943 and folk had the huge conflicts of a world war to be worrying about. It was a time for trying to keep spirits up, so forgive them if there was scant appetite for reports of carnage quite this close to home.

"They reckon it was suppressed deliberately but there's no proof of that," says Elizabeth Coleman, whose father and brother perished on that bright, cold Central day.

The train.

"I do think people couldn't talk about it because it was too huge an issue in the community. It was just too much for them to handle."

The story has since been revisited of course, through anniversaries. The family of the blamed driver, who had been drinking, was travelling fast, and was later jailed for three years, would probably say its a story that has been worked over time and again.

But for all her sympathy for the driver, whose own tale she believes has yet to be fully told, Mrs Coleman and the variously hurt survivors and their families, have long had a sense that this was a disaster that had scant, barely dutiful, acknowledgment.

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Even for the Hyde School centenary publication there was a steely line of thinking that no reference was appropriate "we were told to remove any mention" of it."

Well that didn't happen.

And when Mrs Coleman was arranging a memorial at Hyde she says a rail spokesman quietly explained to her that "head office aren't keen on memorials to disasters." She was not even slightly deterred.

It turns out the alloy of emotions, experiences and realisations hard won through counselling that have helped forge this woman's personality have made her highly resistant to resistance. She pressed ahead.

People don't really understand the depth of her passion to make this story public, she says.

When the memorial was officially dedicated in 1991 (complete with due representation from NZ Rail, thank you very much) survivors, on-scene helpers and families of the dead kept coming to her with their own stories.

"It was a bit overwhelming, there and then. I stored them away all this time, knowing in the back of my mind there was a story here."

More than one, it turns out. Mrs Coleman and editor Gillian-Mary Swift who have compiled many of them for the booklet Stories of the Hyde Railway Disaster 1943.

The more than 25 descriptions are all the more powerful for the straightforward, stark way so many of them are told.

"They are not pretty stories," says Mrs Coleman, "but they need to be heard."

Donella Hore (nee Mitchell): "We all knew the train was speeding. We were thrown around in our seats as the train swayed from side to side and luggage was falling off the overhead racks ... One elderly couple decided to get off at Middlemarch and find a safer way to get to Dunedin, but the train didn't make it that far."

David O'Connor Mrs Coleman's brother just eight at the time, looked over at the stern warning on the emergency lever on the wall: "To Stop Train in Extreme Emergency Pull Lever Down. Penalty for Improper Use 10."

"I guess that was why no one activated it ... "

When the crash had come, young David found himself pinned down by a bar across his throat, heavy enough that he felt pinned down, although the sensation was deceptive. His rescuer lifted it almost effortlessly.

Before that, though: "Every time anyone moved above me they sent a shower of dust down into my eyes and mouth, but the most frightening thing was when they started up a gas torch ... I thought they were going to burn me."

Dr Adrian Webb tells of nixing another doctor's desperate proposal to amputate, without anaesthetic or surgical equipment, both legs of a young woman pinned under a steel girder.

They finally cut the girder off, and she escaped with skinned shins.

Were it fiction, that's where that particular story might have satisfyingly stopped.

Sadly, no.

"Her baby, only a few weeks old, was found dead in a little cot basket which had been put in a rack above the passengers.

"There was no outward sign of injury, but perhaps the extreme air compression at the moment of impact had ruptured her tiny lungs."

Malcolm O'Connell tells of the seriously injured, including his dying father, being leaned up against a fence, rather than stretched out on the cold ground.

For people battling bodily trauma and shock, it seems the cold also took its price.

Just a few shafts of light lessen the distress, such as Betsy Abercrombie (nee Stewart), then 22, who climbed aboard the ill-starred express with one dozen precious wartime eggs and, when her desperately worried brother came running up to her afterwards, called out: "Here are the eggs, Norman. I don't think there are any broken ones."

One story not told in this collection is that of Elizabeth Coleman herself. That is a tale for another time and another book.

She was four at the time, but the deaths of her father, Thomas Connor, 44, and brother John, 11, and the injury to brother David, took an abiding toll that went beyond the loss of the dream of settling down to be a district farm family.

She felt emotionally orphaned as her internally distraught mother "disengaged."

"When the war was over, everyone was rejoicing about it. She couldn't rejoice. She said: `it didn't take a war to kill my sons.'."

Even now, Mrs Coleman now finds herself swept by great waves of distress and empathy upon such news as the recent Victorian bushfires.

But at least she hasn't just bottled it all up.

"I have cried the tears that my mother never cried. She wasn't able to, because of the culture of the time. I have always said she went to the grave with an ocean full of tears."

Mrs Coleman's tears also fell for her other brother Alistair, who died at 18 when hit and how additionally cruel is this? by a train in Gore.

She lost her own son Alister, at 16, from asthma.

But no life story is properly told by listing its sorrows. Mrs Coleman, a Kingston resident, happily attests that her own book might have come out sooner had she not been so beautifully distracted "with daughters getting married and grandchildren coming along."

Stories of the Hyde Railway Disaster 1943 is available from Paper Plus bookstores, the Kingston Flyer Fairlight railway station, or directly from the author Elizabeth Coleman PO Box 15, Kingston or by phoning (03) 248 8988

The Southland Times