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Tragedy! Disaster! Catastrophe!

New Zealand’s Worst Disasters: True Stories That Rocked a Nation
by Graham Hutchins and Russell Young (Exisle, $49.99)
Reviewed by Judith Morrell Nathan

Disasters-001This book is a chronological series of short, readable accounts of a wide variety of New Zealand disasters from 1855 to 2012: earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, fires, mine explosions, drownings, shipwrecks, rail and plane crashes and more. The variety is one of this book’s strengths. It is the stories of the lesser known disasters that generate the most interest. I would expect all readers to find fascinating details about events that they had not previously heard of.

Despite its title referring to New Zealand’s worst disasters, the selection is somewhat idiosyncratic. It is has some surprising, unexplained omissions – most notably our worst mine disaster at Brunner on the West Coast where there were 65 deaths and our worst fire at Ballantynes department store in Christchurch with 41 deaths. They were not left out by accident as both are referred to in the text. These omissions are somewhat ironic when, in the introduction, the authors express the hope that “the lessons learned in earlier disasters will continue to be applied”. The Pike River disaster of 2010 and the Ralph mine disaster of 1914 – both in this book – clearly demonstrated that the lessons learned about methane explosions in the Brunner mine in 1896 were not applied.

In including the enormous Raetihi bush fire in which there were no fatalities, the authors justifiably state that the number of lives lost was not the only criterion for selection. But this does not explain the inclusion of crashes of five small planes: they were not all “stories that rocked a nation”.

Disasters are a good source of newspaper photographs and these are used to illustrate every incident except, for obvious reasons, the 1855 earthquake: that entry includes a couple of interesting paintings. But the selection of photographs is at times disappointing, especially for the more recent events when there would have been so many to choose from. Why include a photo of the 1980 West Coast rugby team in the account of the Pike River mine disaster? The fact that Bernie Monk was its captain does not make it relevant. In addition, the book has a rather odd map at the front that includes Dunedin in Central Otago and excludes Timaru from Canterbury.

In the introduction, the authors claim “we get a glimpse of New Zealand’s social history as the country evolved into a modern democracy”. For example, it illustrates that attitudes to mental illness have dramatically changed for the better since the tragic Seacliff Hospital fire that killed 39 people in 1942. But I cannot see a connection between natural or man-made disasters and democracy.

Despite these reservations, I found this book was an interesting read. It certainly cast light on some appalling tragedies during the last 150 years and reminds us how many were caused or exacerbated, or occasionally alleviated, by human actions.