Sunday, February 17, 2013

Out of the blue, tragedy

On a golden Wairarapa morning, a teenage girl’s life was extinguished.
I didn’t see it happen; apparently no passengers on our train did. But I had idly noted the white ute approaching from our right as we headed south from Masterton on the 7.50 am service to Wellington.

Apparently the ute ploughed straight into the locomotive, rupturing its fuel tank. The 15-year-old female passenger was flung 20 metres. The 17-year-old driver is in Masterton Hospital with head injuries.
The first inkling of something amiss was the sounding of an electronic buzzer as the train began to slow. We came to a halt several hundred metres beyond the scene of the impact, roughly midway between Masterton and Carterton.

A female guard, looking slightly shaken, came through our carriage and announced the train had hit a vehicle. On no account were we to leave, even if the train doors opened. It was only then that I made the connection with the white ute I had seen minutes before.
Someone asked whether there were lights at the crossing, on Wiltons Road. I said there weren’t; it was a quiet rural area. There are lots of uncontrolled crossings on Wairarapa back roads.

An elderly man with a Scottish accent wondered whether the driver of the ute had been blinded by the sun. Certainly the vehicle was heading east, toward the main highway; it was a glorious, bright morning and the sun, at 8.10 am, was still relatively low in the sky.  But how can you not see a train?
Was he, then, racing to beat it? We don’t know. In time there may be an explanation. In the meantime a girl is dead and a family will be grieving.
What gave this tragedy an almost surreal quality was that it happened in such a pretty place on such a blissfully calm, clear morning. The Wairarapa never looks better than in late summer, when the grass has browned off to an almost silvery grey, the trees are a deep, cool green and the formidable Tararuas look almost benign in the morning sun. You could clearly see the glint on the roof of Powell Hut, 1200 metres up. Only moments before the crash, I had been marvelling at how idyllic the countryside looked.

I was reminded again of W H Auden’s poem Musee des Beaux Arts, in which he memorably wrote about how terrible things happen in mundane circumstances: “While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” Or, as in this case, heading into Wellington to celebrate a grandson’s birthday and to pick up a car we’d left with our daughter several weeks before.
The mood in our carriage was subdued. People carried on reading or made phone calls. A heavily tattooed man played games on his smartphone.

Things happened quickly, considering where we were. Firefighters passed through the carriage, heading for the front of the train, and police were on the scene soon after. They were wearing casual clothes under their police vests and looked as if they had been called in from home.
They asked if anyone had seen anything. Remembering my sighting of the ute, I put my hand up, along with one or two others, and was interviewed later by a personable young Masterton cop named Matt. I told him what I had seen, but it wouldn’t have helped explain what most needed explaining.  
The performance of the train staff, one of whom I recognised as a near neighbour from Masterton, was impossible to fault. They moved back and forth through the train, constantly providing updates. Buses were summoned, and to save us the trouble of walking 500 metres back to the crossing – and possibly getting in the way of the crash scene examination – they came through the grounds of the nearby Ravensdown fertiliser works and picked us up in a paddock.

The buses that would normally have been sent had been broken into the night before (well, this is the Wairarapa) and couldn’t be moved until they’d been thoroughly checked for damage, so we were put on school buses. There was a quintessential moment of New Zealand levity when one of the drivers loudly informed the woman behind the wheel of our bus, who apparently hadn’t driven it before, that it went like a cut cat.
Actually, it didn’t. It was possibly the slowest trip over the Rimutaka Hill since the invention of the internal combustion engine, although the enthralled reaction of a young Russian tourist party on our bus gave me a new appreciation of a road regular users tend to become blasé about.

We arrived in Wellington nearly four and a half hours after leaving Masterton – a trip that normally takes 90 minutes. Who knows what inconvenience this caused some of our fellow travellers, but I heard no one express impatience or frustration. I think everyone was more aware than usual that far worse things can happen.

1 comment:

Richard McGrath said...

Karl the crossing wasn't completely uncontrolled; there were stop signs either side of it. It would appear the driver of the ute didn't see the sign, or chose to ignore it.