Flashback trauma af­ter 1956 crash

An­drew Ash­ton talks to a for­mer po­lice of­fi­cer who reg­u­larly re­lives a hor­rific night, more than 60 years ago

Hawke's Bay Today - - Front Page - An­drew Ash­ton

‘‘ I still see the dead peo­ple, the car tipped up­side down”

It’s pitch black and a young man has landed his car in a ditch on Kennedy Rd. A hand­some rookie po­lice­man sprints to help with noth­ing more than a torch.

He’d been run­ning since hear­ing news that there’d been a se­ri­ous ac­ci­dent. The then 24-year-old Chas Cham­pion doesn’t stop for a breather when he ar­rives at the hor­rific scene and dives into the back seat of the car to help.

A 12- week po­lice train­ing course in the South Is­land hadn’t pre­pared him for what he finds — three dead teenagers. His torch shines on the faces from one, to the sec­ond, and then the third — 14-year-old Pauline May Holt. It is at this point his torch fails. It’s mid­night and he’s alone in the dark with the dead.

The year is 1956, but it was also last night. For now re­tired 88-yearold Con­sta­ble Cham­pion, it has been ev­ery night since be­cause he can­not for­get the trau­matic events.

“Sixty-two years later, I still get flash­backs,” he said.

“I found the car up­side down out­side the old Gil­bert’s fac­tory and three in the back seat were all dead and the two in the front seat were very se­ri­ously in­jured and the torch went out with not a soul around.

“About half an hour later a taxi came through and I got him to go to the po­lice sta­tion and I or­dered two am­bu­lances, two hearses, a break­down wagon, the ma­tron and the po­lice doc­tor, and waited un­til they ar­rived.”

Then came the chal­lenge of in­form­ing the fam­i­lies.

“I had to go round in the mid­dle of the night and tell them what had hap­pened — four bloody times. Once is hard enough . . .

“Then we took the ma­tron to the morgue and stripped three bod­ies. Once is enough but three was some­thing else.

“Then I went back to the sta­tion and I had to stay un­til 11am in the morn­ing typ­ing the lot out. I went home, fell in bed.”

In those days there were no pats on the back, no “thank-yous” and no days off to re­cover — just a rol­lick­ing rep­ri­mand from the sta­tion sergeant for not fin­ish­ing the pa­per­work.

“I called him all the names in the world and threat­ened him — that wasn’t me, that wasn’t me at all.”

A re­port on the ac­ci­dent pub­lished in the Hawke’s Bay Her­aldTri­bune on March 26, two days later, named the vic­tims as 17-yearold Kelvin Foster, 19-year-old Robert Henry Wright and 14-yearold school girl Pauline Holt.

The car had been com­ing back from a lo­cal dance and trav­el­ling at high speed when it swerved to avoid an­other ve­hi­cle.

It then struck a palm tree on the side of the road, hit the con­crete wall of the Gil­bert’s cor­dial fac­tory and then bounced back across the foot­path into a ditch.

The force of the im­pact gen­er­ated by the 1939 V8-pow­ered Ford hit­ting the palm tree was such that was heard half a mile away and to­tally caved in the car’s steel roof.

Driv­ing was Don­ald James Fred­er­ick Morris, aged 19. Cham­pion said he did not know what hap­pened to Morris after­wards but be­lieved his 15-year-old sis­ter Aileen, who had been in the front pas­sen­ger seat, never walked again.

Po­lice As­so­ci­a­tion pres­i­dent Chris Cahill said it dealt with cases like Cham­pion’s “from an era where the symp­toms we now recog­nise as PTSI (Post Trau­matic Stress Ill­ness) were swept un­der the car­pet”.

“It was then thought best to keep things to your­self and not tell any­one . . . even your spouse. Of course that was no so­lu­tion at all.

“In the mid to late 1980s Po­lice, like other or­gan­i­sa­tions in New Zealand so­ci­ety, be­gan to ac­knowl­edge the psy­cho­log­i­cal harms as­so­ci­ated with trau­matic events.

“The as­so­ci­a­tion from time to time still deals with is­sues that have been gen­er­ated from in­ci­dents in the 1970s and 1980s, for ex­am­ple there are still oc­ca­sional post-Ere­bus cases which we as­sist with.”

Cahill said since PTSI was now spo­ken about openly, the as­so­ci­a­tion ex­pected to con­tinue to see cases from decades ago.

“Be­fore the 1980s any po­lice of­fi­cer who sought psy­cho­log­i­cal help was frowned upon . . . un­til it be­gan to be un­der­stood across so­ci­ety that there was tan­gi­ble ben­e­fit in seek­ing as­sis­tance.

“The as­so­ci­a­tion li­aises with re­tired Po­lice clubs and with vet­er­ans af­fairs or­gan­i­sa­tions in­clud­ing the RSA, to the point where if their mem­bers come across any re­tired cop who needs help for PTSI-like symp­toms they can be re­ferred to the as­so­ci­a­tion . . . and they are.

“If nec­es­sary the as­so­ci­a­tion can re­fer them on psy­chol­o­gists for prac­ti­cal help.

“The as­so­ci­a­tion is aware that in many cases trauma sur­faces years af­ter the in­ci­dent, but that does not nec­es­sar­ily mean it is too late to deal with it.”

Cham­pion said he still has flash­backs to this day, and par­tic­u­larly re­mem­bers the youngest vic­tim.

“Her name was Holt and she was 14 years old. She had no con­nec­tion in New Zealand, her fa­ther died in an ac­ci­dent. So she and her mother came to New Zealand from Eng­land.”

He also re­mem­bers telling Holt’s mother that her daugh­ter was also dead.

“I went round and she said ‘no, my daugh­ter is in bed asleep’, and I just thought, ‘oh God’.

“It was the most stress­ful thing I have ever ex­pe­ri­enced in my life. All these years later I wake up in the mid­dle of the night — 65 years later — and I can vi­su­alise all that again.

“I still see the dead peo­ple, the car tipped up­side down. I was crawl­ing around the car with three dead peo­ple and two badly in­jured, try­ing to get them out. It was bloody aw­ful.”

Napier City Coun­cil ceme­tery records show Kelvin Rayner and Pauline Holt are both buried at Napier’s Whar­erangi Ceme­tery.

Writ­ten on Pauline Holt’s grave­stone are the words “ac­ci­den­tally killed 24th March 1956 in her 15th year. She is not dead — she is just away”.

Her mother Winifred Holt was buried along­side her 43 years later.

An in­scrip­tion on the pair’s joint head­stone reads thus: “Winifred Holt, loved mother of Pauline — reunited”.

PHOTO / PAUL TAYLOR

For­mer po­lice­man Charles Cham­pion looks back on pho­tos of the past.

The Hawke’s BayHer­aldTri­bune re­ports on the crash, nam­ing the three vic­tims.

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