A service to remember two volunteer firefighters killed during Cyclone Gabrielle a year ago today has begun this morning.
The Fire and Emergency anniversary function is taking place at Muriwai Fire Station, close to where brigade members Dave van Zwanenberg and Craig Stevens died when a landslide struck the Motutara Rd house they were trying to build a trench behind as the full force of the cyclone thrashed West Auckland beach communities.
Stevens was able to be rescued and was taken to hospital where he later died. Van Zwanenberg’s body was recovered two days later.
Ngāti Whātua o Kaipara welcomed the 150 at the event with karanga and karakia before Fire and Emergency deputy chief executive – Tumu Whakarae Tuarua Piki Thomas replied.
In sunny, breezy weather overlooking the Tasman Sea, below a New Zealand flag at half mast and accompanied by a chorus of cicada call, people gathered to hear from the married fathers’ widows, their local fire chief Andy Callaghan, and national chief executive Kerry Gregory, and to formally unveil a plaque and seating area to remember the men.
The wife of one of the two Muriwai firefighters killed during Cyclone Gabrielle says she has finally accepted nothing could have been done to save her husband.
Speaking at the ceremony, Dave van Zwanenberg’s wife Amy spoke about the heartbreak she feels knowing the pair’s two young children, George and Zara, did not get enough time with their dad.
“But I will make sure they know what an incredibly caring and capable man he was and how devoted he was to them,” van Zwanenberg said.
As she discussed the grief she felt for the past year, Van Zwanenberg said she has finally come to terms that there was nothing that could’ve saved her husband.
“But as I didn’t learn for some time that no one and nothing could have saved Dave, knowing in my heart that you did everything you could, for as long as you could, meant the world and still does,” van Zwanenberg said.
The wife of Craig Stevens, Lucy, was given a special mention in the emotional speech.
“To have a friend to walk this road with is a burden you would never wish upon anyone but a blessing to have,” van Zwanenberg said.
“Craig would be, as always, in awe of you.”
Van Zwanenberg also mentioned those who endured the “harrowing” conditions one year ago today, along with the Muriwai community.
“I have seen humanity at its best, a privilege that has dovetailed alongside the grief,” van Zwanenberg said.
Van Zwanenberg finished her speech by speaking about the memorial.
“This beautiful seat area is, I think, literally made with the blood, sweat and tears of the Muriwai Brigade in particular,” van Zwanenberg said.
“So, while grief is love with nowhere to go, we now have an incredible place to sit, think, remember, and appreciate those we love.”
Lucy Stevens said the last thing she told her husband on the night the cyclone hit was that she loved him.
He had returned home from help clear downed trees in Muriwai to check on his family before leaving again to help dig a trench at a property at risk of a slip.
“Craig, I do not have the words to express how deeply you’re missed,” Stevens said.
The family have not been able to return to their home since the cyclone, which has added to their grief, Stevens said.
Fire and Emergency chief executive Kerry Gregory spoke at the ceremony about the ongoing grief experienced by the community.
“Sometimes you wake up and feel like you’re experiencing the loss all over again.
“How do you hold onto these memories as time goes on? So that’s why something like this is good. Everyone can come along and remember.
“Although Dave and Craig aren’t here … they’re in the aroha we feel.”
Fire and Emergency’s Katie Pocock, on behalf of Waitemata District Leadership, said the conditions first responders faced that night were harrowing.
“The darkness, the water, the noise, the wind, the confusion, the loss.
“We are all forever changed because of that loss. We make a pledge that we will never forget the sacrifice.”
In a statement, Fire and Emergency NZ (Fenz) said today’s ceremony would include the unveiling of a memorial dedicated to the Muriwai firefighters as well as a plaque marking the events of Cyclone Gabrielle on the community last year.