Kiri Te Kanawa
February 7th, 1963.
As the old bus crawled up the steep Brynderwyns, just south of Waipu, the 35 Maori passengers sang, laughed, and talked. Some were on seats, others in the aisle. The children were all eager to get back to school and tell their friends how they had travelled to the Bay of Islands to see Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip.
The bus was specially chartered for the trip and plenty of rest stops had been planned. The first break was at Whangarei where driver Harold Parker topped up on petrol and oil. Then the bus took a stop on the Ruakaka flat. With everyone fresh from the break the group continued on towards Waipu and the Brynderwyns. These are big hills known for the number of lives lost on them. The roads were steep, winding, tight and in in places they dropped suddenly away for a hundred metres or so.
Although drivers often wondered about their brakes on this stretch of road the bus seemed to be good in that area. In fact, Harold Parker almost thought the brakes were too good. Several times passengers had requested he go easy after a touch on the pedal had shifted them in their seats.
At the very top of the highest rise in the area another break was taken before the downward trek. Parker eased the bus out onto the road again then shifted into third gear where he expected to stay until the bottom. After a short distance he applied the brake only to have it go straight to the floor.
Parker then attempted to change from third gear into second hoping to gain further control that way, this failed and he was forced back into third gear. At the same time he applied the handbrake and the bus started to slow, then it began to gather speed again.
Now Harold Parker was left with few choices and only a tiny amount of time to make a decision on what to do. He could either run the bus into the bank beside them, or he could take a chance on reaching the bottom where a stretch of straight road awaited. Because the body of the bus was wooden running into the bank presented serious danger. The chances were great that the sides and top would be completely torn away.
So he headed for the bottom.
He successfully navigated two bends steering with one hand and still trying to slow the bus by pulling on the handbrake. Only one more bend to the straight road. The bus made it part way around the corner, but the speed was too great and it left the road. The bus then smashed through a wire fence and tumbled through scrub down a 30-metre vertical slope to the bank of the Piroa Stream.
The first man to reach the spot was a local farmer who heard the crash. He found a tangle of bodies and people moaning with pain. Along with his son he set out to assist passengers in escaping from the tangled wreckage. It was a ghastly scene and as rescuers tried to help the injured they were amazed at the number of people who came to view the crash and look at the bodies. Several parents even took young children over to look.
Of the wooden vehicle little was left. The crash stripped away most of the bodywork and tore away all but a few seats near the front. Just as she had for victims of the Tangiwai disaster 10-years earlier the Queen sent a message on condolence to the families and friends of the fifteen people who died. This remains New Zealand's worst road accident to date.
At an inquiry two months after the disaster an automotive engineer explained the cause of the brake failure was a loss of hydraulic pressure in the system, this was due to the rupture of the cup washer in the right-hand rear wheel. As a result of these findings the passenger service vehicle construction regulations were amended. The new regulations were much stricter when it came to the type of braking systems permitted on passenger vehicles.