Regional | Emergency Services

Muriwai fire chief speaks for the first time: 'It was seconds'

By Moana Maniapoto

"The only reason I survived was because I was on the other side of the road getting a shovel off the truck.”

Phelan Pirrie is the sole survivor of the trio who manned the Muriwai fire truck on the night of February 13, when Cyclone Gabrielle struck the tiny settlement on Auckland’s west coast.

Pirrie is also the Muriwai fire chief. His companions, Dave van Zwanenberg and Craig Stevens, were both tragically killed when houses toppled on top of each other, after mud and trees slid down the cliffs onto Motutara Road. It was the speed and ferocity of those landslides that prompted Pirrie to speak to Te Ao with Moana.

“It's not like in the movies where people run away with this thing slowly moving behind them. It was seconds. It was like an explosion and it wasn’t until the next day that you saw the whole cliff had come down. You couldn’t quite see that because of the spotlight.”

Fire drill then alert

Pirrie has lived in the tiny village for 20 years. He and his squad of 18 volunteers have tended to fires, medical emergencies, car accidents and other disasters. But nothing prepared them for what happened that night.

While conducting their regular weekly training drill at the Muriwai station, calls started coming in that water was pouring into homes on Domain Crescent. The trio jumped into the station’s truck.

Phelan described a ‘wall of clay’ moving under one house.

In 1965, after heavy rainfall, fatal landslides had killed two people in that same spot. An article in the New Zealand Geographic recorded that witnesses said the landslide moved at 90 kilometres an hour.

Evacuation call

So, when they heard the trees cracking, the team called for everyone to evacuate to the Muriwai Surf Club. The pump truck then returned to the station while the four-wheel drive carrying Pirrie, Zwanenberg and Stevens drove down Motutara Road. That’s when the fire chief got his first shock.

“Water was just coming horizontally off the banks. I've never seen that. This is quite weird because it's a hill. Hills don't flood.”

Zwanenberg and Stevens wanted to stop and check on a house. Pirrie parked on the driveway and shone the truck’s spotlights up the driveway while the others grabbed their spades and entered the two-storied place where the bottom level was starting to flood. Their intention was to dig a trench around the building. As Pirrie turned to step off the truck with his shovel, he couldn’t believe his eyes.

Muriwai fire chief Phelan Pirrie. Source: File

Hill 'exploded'

“The whole hill just exploded out towards me and the whole house just came off the hill and I just turned and ran. There were trees and stuff coming down where I was and I ran behind the shop opposite. It was just…the roar was incredible, the sound and all the debris coming down where the truck was parked.”

Pirrie describes quiet, then the sound of screaming. He realized it was coming from a woman trapped in the roof cavity of a house that had moved.

“Just the enormity of what you’re seeing was really hard to comprehend and the speed at which it happened was incredible.”

As he pulled the woman out, Pirrie could hear Stevens on the radio calling for help. Both Craig Stevens and Dave Van Zwanenberg were trapped. Boulders and houses would continue coming down around rescuers during the nearly four hours it would take for them to pull Stevens out from under a metre of mud and clay. It would be days before they found Van Zwanenberg's body.

Muriwai closed

Both were farewelled as heroes by families and a community still in shock.

Three weeks later and there are still big restrictions on who can get in and out of Muriwai.

To Muriwaiians, it seems impossible to miss the flashing signs at Waimauku which announce the beach and park are both closed with access to residents only.

Yet vans full of tourists, cars weighed down by surfing gear and the odd truck towing a boat - enter the village, impervious to both environmental dangers and a community in mourning.

A security team guards the blockade to Motutara Road. They and the residents recognise each other now, many of whom drop them kai and stop for a chat. Both admit to some amusement as unauthorised vehicles are turned back by police stationed at the top of Waitea Road.

Families in limbo

There are 128 red-stickered properties in Muriwai, meaning no access at all - even if they appear unaffected. Forty-eight are yellow-stickered. Seventy-four houses remain unassessed because the council has deemed it too unsafe to do so.

Geotech teams are mapping movement of the cliffs. The setback of buildings at the bottom of the cliffs and those on the cliff edges at the top are urgently under review. Families in limbo vent their frustration at weekly village meetings run by the council.

Pirrie, who has spent time with the engineers, has just stepped down after nine years on the Rodney Local Board - including time as chair.

“The Resource Management Act means that if I want to build a house and I can get an engineer to say the house is okay and the design is safe, if the council refuses that, I can go to the Environment Court and I can go to the High Court. The council is not going to fight every application.

Central government buyout?

"One of the engineers said to a visiting minister: ‘You need to empower councils to decline consents without appeal on the basis that the area is not safe.’ But that raises the question that, if it is your private land, is that fair? I guess the next question is – does central government have a role to step in and say we’ve red-zoned these areas and we will negotiate to buy you out?”

Pirrie is still haunted by the speed and scale of the slips, particularly the fact people were still in their houses as they moved.

“I think this might be difficult for some people but some of those areas shouldn't have houses built back on them. We have to learn from what happened in the 1960s. And the safest thing for people to do is for the government to decide to buy them out and allow people to get on with their lives. The government needs to make a decision really quickly.”

Moana Maniapoto and her family have lived in Muriwai Beach since 2010. Their property is yellow stickered because the cliff directly below it subsided. They are hosting an elderly couple whose property on Motutara Road is red-stickered.